The Covid-19 pandemic exposed glaring inadequacies in India’s public healthcare system, particularly during the devastating second wave in April-May last year when thousands of deaths were officially reported on a daily basis. The pandemic also laid bare gaping holes in the 125-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act, which is devoid of provisions for the management of a Covid-like national health emergency. This Act, whose text is barely three pages long, is in any case an apology for a legislation. It’s baffling that a law enacted in 1897 has survived till the third decade of the 21st century. At long last, the stage is set for its repeal as the Union Government is finalising the contours of the National Public Health Act. The new law will have an all-encompassing ambit, covering not only epidemics and pandemics but also public health emergencies caused by bioterrorism, natural disasters, chemical and nuclear attacks or mishaps.
This law will empower Central and state governments to enforce preventive measures such as lockdown, masking and quarantine without invoking the National Disaster Management Act. An expert panel will go through the draft legislation that NITI Aayog submitted to the Health Ministry last month. Importantly, the comments made by state governments will be taken into consideration while fine-tuning the law, in an apparent bid to have all stakeholders on board and avoid a repeat of the fiasco of the three farm laws, which had to be scrapped just over a year after their enactment.
The draft Bill has proposed a four-tier system involving the public health authorities at the national, state, district and block levels. It is expected that the new law will improve coordination between various authorities and fix accountability of officials at all tiers. It is admirable that the government is bringing in a law to strengthen public health governance, but the job will remain half-done as long as the shortage of doctors persists. India’s doctor-patient ratio has improved to 1:834, according to the Health Ministry, but it is still inadequate to handle the burgeoning population, especially during an emergency. The biggest challenge will be to ensure that the new Act makes India’s healthcare future-ready.
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