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WHO has launched its COVID-19 Law Lab initiative to help countries around the world draw up legislation in relation to the pandemic. What is India’s contribution?

By Gautam Mishra

Public health enactments assume a vital role in the control of any pestilence or pandemic. In order to contain the spread of Covid-19, the government of India implemented a national lockdown on March 24, 2020. For its legitimate implementation, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005, were used.

Now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has come forward with a reliable legal framework under a new COVID-19 Law Lab with an aim to provide vital legal information and support for the global response to the pandemic. The COVID-19 Law Lab is an initiative that collects and shares legal documents from more than 190 countries to help states develop, establish and implement a legal framework to deal with Covid-19. The WHO stated that “the goal is to ensure that laws protect the health and well being of individuals and communities and that they adhere to international human rights standards”.

The new Lab (https://covidlawlab.org/), is a joint project of WHO, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. UNDP is the leading United Nations organisation fighting poverty, inequality and climate change in 170 countries. WHO provides global leadership in public health within the United Nations system.

“Laws and policies that are grounded in science, evidence, and human rights can enable people to access health services, protect themselves from Covid-19 and live free from stigma, discrimination, and violence,” says Achim Steiner, UNDP administrator. “The COVID-19 Law Lab is an important tool for sharing good practices on laws and policies,” he added.

The website states that the COVID-19 Law Lab is a database of laws that countries have implemented in response to the pandemic. It includes state of emergency declarations, quarantine measures, disease surveillance, legal measures relating to mask-wearing, social distancing, and access to medication and vaccines. The database will continue to grow as more countries and themes are added.

India has contributed 15 documents to this database that includes India Containment Plan for Large Outbreaks of Covid-19, Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, India Disaster Management Act, 2005, invoked for Covid-19, Government of NCT Delhi Covid Regulations, Maharashtra State Regulations, India Order against Landlords Covid 19 (NCT Delhi), Telemedicine Guidelines, Amendment to Epidemic Diseases Act, Kerala Epidemic Diseases Ordinance, Covid-19 Regulations, 2020, etc.

During the press conference launching WHO’s COVID-19 Law Lab, Dr Michael Ryan, executive director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, mentioned India, Brazil and the US, saying: “All the three countries are powerful, able and democratic countries who have the tremendous internal capacity to deal with this disease, and there are many hundreds of thousands of brave frontline workers, doctors, nurses, hygienists, logisticians and others who fight in the frontlines just like in every other country. You know, given large countries can have large problems because, by their very nature, they are large, they are populous, they are complex and also there are differences of opinion and differences between the federal and the state levels in many countries all over the world. It’s one of the prices that countries pay for democracy in that context. …particularly these countries and many more have tremendous internal capacities and I believe can turn this around because of the nature of their public health, their science, and their innate capacities to fight this disease. I trust that these three countries are doing that and will do that and will escalate and upgrade their responses in order to bring this disease under control.”

Dr Ryan also mentioned that the regional office for Southeast Asia is based in Delhi under the leadership of Dr Poonam Singh, who is one of WHO’s largest country officers in the world and works very closely with the Indian government.

Along with medical and other logistical preparations, the Covid-19 pandemic also requires an urgent legislative framework to tackle and control it.

“Harmful laws can exacerbate stigma and discrimination, infringe on people’s rights and undermine public health responses,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “To ensure responses to the pandemic are effective, humane, and sustainable, governments must use the law as a tool to uphold the human rights and dignity of people affected by Covid-19,” she added.

WHO believes that well-designed laws can help build strong health systems; evaluate and approve safe and effective drugs and vaccines, and enforce actions to create healthier and safer public spaces and workplaces. Critically, they are vital to effective implementation of the WHO International Health Regulations—surveillance; infection prevention and control; management of travel and trade; and implementation of measures to maintain essential health services.

“We need to track and evaluate how laws and policies are being used during the pandemic to understand what works,” said Dr Matthew M Kavanagh, faculty member of Georgetown University’s Department of International Health. Katie Gottschalk, executive director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, added: “We must learn lessons from the early stage of pandemic policies to implement the most effective laws going forward—the COVID-19 Law Lab allows us to do just that.”

At a Covid-19 press conference Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO, said, “One of the tools governments can use is the law, not to coerce but to protect, while protecting human rights… laws that are poorly designed, implemented, or enforced can have marginalised populations entrench stigma and discrimination and hinder efforts to end the pandemic. However, the database at the COVID-19 Law Lab will continue to grow as more countries and themes are added…”

The WHO press release further stated that “it will also feature research on different legal frameworks for COVID-19. These analyses will focus on the human rights impact of public health laws and help countries identify best practices to guide their immediate responses to COVID-19 and socio-economic recovery efforts once the pandemic is under control. It builds off the work of the UHC Legal Solutions Network, which was established to help countries achieve universal health coverage through the implementation of rights-based legal frameworks”.

The initiative aims to support countries to achieve universal health coverage by working with policymakers, civil society groups and other stakeholders to craft laws that ensure that all people and communities have the right to access the promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.

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