Pandemic, stigma & the law:Lessons from history (By Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
27 April 2020 22:32 IST

The director of AIIMS Dr. Randeep Guleria for the first time spoke of stigmatizing the Covid-19 patients, which results in late arrival to hospitals and higher death rate. Otherwise the   recovery rate is very high. About 90-95 % of the infector recover fully.The stigma attached to the virus infected patients has also resulted in perversion in society and made people behave in an inhuman way

Medical and police professionals have been attacked not only in the BIMARU states but even in states Karnataka, Punjab and   Tamil Nadu which are considered forward. When contacts and family members of  Covid-19 positive persons are sought to be taken for isolation, the medical professionals and the police are attacked by their supporters and neighbors and their vans vandalized. Quarantining suspects and sealing of areas for containment has normally met with public resistance all over the country. Incidents of doctors being spat at are also reported. Doctors are made to vacate tenanted premises under pressure from the housing colony residents

The Uttar Pradesh Government reacted by booking the offenders under the draconian National Security Act. Various Governments have attempted to deal with the situation by the District Magistrate persuading the people and arresting the culprits under the normal riot law. 

The medical fraternity had been complaining for a long time. As IMA threatened to  observe a protest day on 23rd April, the Government brought an amendment to the colonial Epidemic Diseases  Act 1897  by way of an ordinance to prescribe quick  investigation, trial and punishment for attack on health workers. The ordinance prescribes jail term of up to 7 years and fine of up to two lakhs. The ordinance has been widely welcomed as the health workers who are in the forefront of saving lives, in pandemic times deserve protection.

The tipping point has been the death of Dr. Simon Hercules, a neurosurgeon, who succumbed to COVID -19. The family was attacked with stones and   sticks when the body was taken for burial. The burial finally took place with the intervention of the health ministry at the dead of night without any family members. His friend Dr. Kumar buried him with his own hands. The Meghalaya High Court intervened to order providing of all security against obstructers as  Dr. John L. Sailo  Ryntathiang, director of Bethany  Hospital Shillong, who also fell to Covid-19 could not be cremated due to authorities and crematorium officials  colluding to deny a decent cremation

 But it is not that only doctors are under attack or their families  face persecution   due to Covid -19. A Padma awardee, who spent  a life time working as a Hazoori ragi at the Golden temple where he played the kirtan, Nirmal Singh Khalsa fell victim to Covid-19 and the villagers  refused to let his last rites performed at the public crematoria in the village. The authorities finally cremated him in an obscure place at the village border. In Delhi a Kabristhan has been made a covid-19 burial ground after mobs attacked those performing last rites

What has happened to our society in the 21st century and when there is educational and technological advancement?

The resistance to quarantining is as old as epidemics and pandemics. The infected always resisted  getting quarantined as that is taken as slur and stigma on them. Dipankar  Gupta, a sociology professor at JNU says that “…illness in India and especially serious ones are never individual affairs. Families and neighbors are involved and there is no other way around it- to be separated from them when you are most vulnerable....”  . There was resistance to isolation and inspection in 1896 after the Bubonic plague hit the Bombay presidency. Thousands died and thousands fled from Bombay and Poona. The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 was brought    due to the resistance  by the people to follow orders. The law giving powers of search , inspection and detention for isolating the infected was brutally enforced by the British administrators and the army which led to a public outcry  highlighted by non-other than Lokmanya Tilak . Fired by the public outcry, in a charged atmosphere,Chapekar  brothers killed the W.C. Rand the plague commissioner and his military escort Lt. Ayrest  . The conviction of Lokmanya Tilak in a sedition case as a fall out of his writings in Kesari highlighting the inhuman action by the European officers is  now part of history. ( he was the first sedition convict).  Actually the plague commissioner was doing a noble job of protecting lives but the populace was not prepared to accept highhandedness.

The ruthless use of the Epidemic Diseases Act in 1900 in Kanpur to quarantine Indian subjects but not  the Europeans  led to riots. Thereafter official statement of the government claimed “No system of plague administration can be successful which does carry the people with it. From this point of view any rigid system of plague measures is to be deprecated, and he is the most successful plague administrator who is able to gauge the temper of a particular class of people he is dealing with”

 In so far as funerals and cremations it is feared   that the corpse would spread infection. There is a fear, paranoia and panic that there could transmission of the virus, even when there is no evidence of such transmission. The World Health Organization has made clear protocols over dealing with deaths and corpses and performance of last rites. This problem is also as old as the epidemics. In 1889 the cremation of a plague victim in Ganjam village near Bangalore led to riots and as the authorities and the locals clashed resulting in death of locals. A report on health in the Indian princely states1850 -1950   by Walturd Ernst    “…. Government realized that to implement its plague control measures it needed the support of the people. This was possible only through persuasion and taking the people into confidence about the threats from the epidemic and measures to tackle it.

It is good to have law in place to deal with untoward incidents. Criminalizing actions may lead to and is also required to enforce sense of good conduct But however noble the laws are, it is important that people are taken into confidence and their hearts won over.

In the matter of Covid 19, there is too much of fear and  panic . The ruthless lockdown in dealing with the pandemic has only added to the paranoia. A message has to go that there is no slur in getting in infected and no stigma in getting quarantined or that corpse do not infect the surroundings. The mortality rate is only about 5%. Currently that message is neither loud nor clear.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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Nicely written and nicely fococed on how people need to remain helpful at government decision .

- SUDESH TIVREKAR, Khorlim , MAPUSA GOA | 28 th April 2020 09:34


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