The covid-19 pandemic has ushered in an era of heightened digital surveillance as a disease containment strategy. However, such surveillance could do more harm than good in the absence of a well-defined legislative framework to protect civil liberties, suggests an article in the Economic and Political Weekly.
The article, by Kritika Bhardwaj of the National Law University, argues that much of India’s response to the pandemic has been ad hoc and has not followed any public health legislation framework.
The handling of a pandemic does require some privacy intrusion. Authorities may have to trace people’s movements and compel them to undergo testing and isolation. However, this has grave implications for civil liberties, says Bhardwaj. A legal framework, clearly defining the checks and balances and rights and remedies for those affected by abuse of such power, is essential to bring certainty and accountability to government functioning, the article says.
India lacks a well-defined legal framework and a standard operating procedure to guide its response to disease outbreaks, argues Bhardwaj, citing a 2015 WHO report on India’s compliance with international health regulations.
These gaps are exacerbated when coordination is required with states, which have more power over health policy.
Five years have passed since the WHO report, but the situation has not changed, says Bhardwaj.
This implies that states have had to invoke the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to fight the virus, but this century-old law gives governments extreme powers without procedural safeguards, she adds.
Similarly, the Disaster Management Act, 2005, invoked by the Centre allows it to issue binding guidelines to states.
Bhardwaj warns that such “ad hoc, play-by-ear" executive guidelines have led to the adoption of digital technology without an understanding of their limitations and the harm this can cause.
Also read: Digital surveillance systems to combat covid-19 may do more harm than good.