By Vivek Pattanayak in Bhubaneswar, April 5, 2020: Stitch in time saves nine is an age-old saying in the English language. But the COVID 19 outbreak spreading literally to all countries and continents in short period of time killing more than 68,000 people and affecting 12.5 lakh people so far clearly points out that the governments have miserably failed to act in time and save the precious lives.

The developed countries have taken the maximum brunt of this deadly virus attack. Loss of lives in the most developed country like US and equally prosperous continent like Europe is certainly alarming. One of the emerging markets – China from where it started has suffered huge loss of lives. Rich and poor alike are under its fury.

Sophie Trudeau the wife of Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, Boris Johnson the Prime Minister of UK and his Health Minister, and even Prince Charles, next in line to the British throne are under grip of this insidious virus.

The moot question is whether we could have avoided such a piquant situation. After 2008 financial crisis the Queen Elizabeth had asked similar question to the economists, how could nobody foresee such a crisis. Not that people had not foreseen such a possible outcome of sub-prime lending but then people who mattered or in the right places either ignored it or took it lightly or did not even know about it. It is said Raghunath Rajan had predicted it. Similarly, possible virus attack could endanger the whole world came in TED talks from Bill Gates in 2015. Both are known to most of the readers in India and abroad.

Whether somebody had predicted such a crisis or not is not relevant but what is important is whether there was an inbuilt mechanism to face such a situation. Epidemic and pandemic are nothing new to the world. In the 21st century there is technology of instant communication like internet, mobile telephone, and many state-of-art IT applications and national and international institutions both government and non-government to monitor and disseminate information across the world. Finally, in the world governments are there to take appropriate timely action.

In India, the Epidemic Diseases Act,1897 is more than one-hundred-year-old law. Section 2 and 2A of the Act give authority to the Central Government and State government to prescribe regulations to prevent spread of epidemic disease. Law envisaged inspection of persons travelling by railway or ship suspected of being infected any such disease declared as epidemic. There is provision in law for detention, segregation in hospital or temporary accommodation.

A public health emergency is defined as an occurrence or imminent threat of an illness or health condition, caused by bioterrorism, epidemic or pandemic disease or novel and highly infectious agent or biological toxin.

WHO declared the virus attack as international public health emergency and named the virus COVID-19. WHO categorically says, it is an extraordinary event which constitutes a public health risk to other States through international spread of diseases is considered an emergency. At the same time, it has prescribed regulation in order that there is no unnecessary interference to international trade and traffic. International Health Regulation of 2005 is a binding instrument among the member States. It recognizes dignity, human rights and fundamental freedom and it is guided by the Charter of UN and constitution of WHO. The goal is universal application for the protection of the people in the world from international spread of diseases. The States making health legislations must keep these regulations in picture.

A Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) is defined as an event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other Sates through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response. The Emergency Committee of WHO consisting of experts advise Director General to consider an event as PHIC. WHO had declared PHEIC on few occasions like 2009 swine flu, 2014 polio declaration,2014 Ebola declaration and 2016 Zika declaration? Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) called camel flu, however, was not declared as PHEIC. Spread of COVID 19 has been declared as such.

Then emergency takes place requirements like isolation of affected people, quarantine, vaccination, non-invasive check and prevention of entry of people affected come into picture. National governments must have monitoring mechanism, focal points for contact with WHO and screening procedures etc. National authorities must have chain of command, reporting system and established procedure of detection of disease.

International Conference of Emerging Diseases do identify the infectious diseases based on exchange of views epidemiologists, scholars and other stakeholders. What guidance materials do evolve from these deliberations should be studied. The questions do come up whether national governments and WHO do take up any follow up measures.

In addition, International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations has a role to play. Under Article 14 of the International Civil Aviation Convention each country has an obligation to prevent the spread of communicable disease by air navigation. There is mandatory requirement to follow sanitary regulations about aircraft. In Articles 13 and 22, there is mention of quarantine of passengers, crew and cargo. Under Article 37 standards and recommended practices have been prescribed for facilitation of international passengers known as Annex 9. It is mandatory for the countries to have plan and procedures to address public health emergencies of international concern as contained in Document 1004 of ICAO.

Since December 2019 knowledge regarding novel corona virus now called COVID 19 was in the public domain through news media and so also about ferocity with which it was claiming lives in China. Since end of January it was declared as public health emergency of global concern.

From the above elucidation the question arises whether adequate legal mechanism existed to handle pandemic. Was there adequate information about the disease for countries to take proactive and preventive action? Could not the countries have taken measures to inspect, isolate, segregate and quarantine international passengers coming from the affected country or countries? Was there adequate global exchange of information and global consultation on the danger and how to address it? Was it not foreseen?

Could the countries have avoided total lockdown disrupting trade, business, commerce and economy to the extent that global GDP would plummet so low? Could they have not taken proactive and preventive measures in a phased and planned manner following all internationally procedures and methods to prevent loss of lives and unprecedented disruption of normal life? These questions will haunt the world for years to come as prevention is always better than cure.

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Swadesh Sundar Patnaik
Swadesh Sundar Patnaik
Thanks for sharing this very thought provoking article. It is dated 15th April, by mistake perhaps , instead of 5th April. Yes, Mr.Pattanayak has rightly pointed out that early prediction of a pandemic is not that important as the built in quick response mechanism . The questions that he has raised are really haunting. Science and Technology has brought us closer to each other. But recently we are segregated in search of our ethnic roots : America for Americans, China for Chinese, British for Britain, Hindusthan for Hindus ( whatever the interpretation of the word Hindu may be) , Muslim… Read more »