Centre, States invoke Epidemic Diseases Act: Why it is illegal to flout official instructions on containing Coronavirus

As the governments scurry to put measures in place to protect public health and prevent the epidemic, we discuss how this 19th century law is helping them fight the 21st century virus.

In the last few days, the Central Government and certain States have invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to arrest Covid-19 or the novel coronavirus pandemic. Pursuant to the invocation, the respective governments are now coming out with various sets of instructions for the public to follow, to safeguard the public health from the threat. The Central government, which had earlier moved to suspend all visas issued to potential visitors, has now come out with a number of measures, including mandatory quarantine for those with history of travel to affected countries or interaction with persons at risk. Similarly, the States have, under the aforesaid legislation, used the powers under the said Act to issue more instructions, such as closure of schools, colleges, gyms, spas, night clubs, cinema halls, etc., and more recently, restrict public gatherings. 

So, what happens if a person willingly ignores or contravenes the directives issued by a government? While Sections 2 and 2A of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 confer powers on the state and the central government to do various things necessary to prevent an outbreak or contain an epidemic, Section 3 stipulates that a person who disobeys “any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code”. Section 188 of the IPC stipulates punishment for disobedience of a duly promulgated order passed by a public servant. Thus, as an example, if a person escapes from a mandatory quarantine (as has been reported to have happened in several cases, recently), he or she could be punished with simple or rigorous imprisonment of up to 6 months, as such disobedience could cause danger to human life, health or safety, as mentioned in the said Section 188. 

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