ON Wednesday the Supreme Court directed the Government of India to provide all health care workers, amongst other things, with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to protect against Corona Virus.
The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China on 31.12.2019. Soon thereafter, the virus engulfed over 185 countries. On 11.03.2020 the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As on date (April 9, 2020), the said virus has affected more than 15,00,000 people and caused deaths of more than 88,000 worldwide people. After the first case in Kerala on January 30, 2020, it has affected more than 5.700 persons and caused the death of over 165 persons in India.
COVID-19 is a virus and can be contracted from others who carry it when they cough and thereby exhale droplets carrying the virus. These droplets may be inhaled by the other person. They also land on surfaces around the person. It is passed by others by touching these objects or surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth thus transmitting the infection. A person who contracts the virus is asymptomatic for a few days and then, in some cases, would develop a dry cough and temperature. In younger and healthier people the ailment resolves itself in about14 days. However, in older people, particularly those with other ailments, the lungs get infected and the immune response is not able to combat the virus. This requires hospitalization and apart from symptomatic treatment ventilator support. A few succumb to the virus.
There is no specific vaccination to prevent or drug to cure COVID-19, Though the mortality rate is low, the COVID-19 virus is highly infective. The problem is that the persons who are carrying the virus may be asymptomatic and not coughing or having high temperature. They can pass on the virus to those who are close to them. That is why social distancing with a mask and staying at home is the first line of defence. In line with that, on 24.03.2020 India had imposed a 21-day lockdown.
Those who become serious need to be hospitalised. it is imperative for doctors to be in constant contact with patients, so as to monitor them on regular intervals, and observe their symptoms and administer the necessary treatment. In such a scenario, doctors and health care workers are the first line of defence in battling such a pandemic. They are also the most vulnerable to fall prey to the virus while protecting others from it. The need appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including masks, goggles, hazmat suits, gloves, footwear etc to protect themselves.
On 25.01.2020 and 24.03.2020 the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) had issued guidelines in this respect. The World Health Organization had also issued guidelines in this respect.
Despite these guidelines, it was found that the health care worker around the country did not have appropriate PPE were using alternatives like rainwear, helmets etc. Not being appropriate, health care workers were getting infected. Nearly one-third of those infected in India are health care workers. On top of that, if the doctors sought to resign from a facility, their resignations were not only not being accepted but they were being threatened with disciplinary action. That apart, doctors were being attacked and violence was being perpetrated on them for doing their job of quarantining Corona positive patients. Some health care workers were also being evicted from the residences by their neighbours on account of the fear that they would spread the disease, apart from being subject to ostracization and discrimination.
It is in these circumstances that Dr Jerryl Bannait, a doctor from Nagpur, with considerable public interest credentials moved the Supreme Court to redress the grievances of the health care workers. Other petitions were also moved on the same issue. One in particular by a doctor couple, the Jains, who prayed for a comprehensive invocation of the Disaster Management Act.
Interestingly, the Union of India, represented by the Solicitor General, did not oppose the petition.
It is in these circumstances that the order came to be passed with the following directions to provide all health care workers, amongst other things, with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to protect against Corona Virus, COVID-19, to provide them necessary police security to protect them from any violence, register offences against those who had perpetrated acts of violence against health care workers and to explore alternate local arrangements to augment domestic production for the production of the PPE.
While the order compels the Governments to make available the most essential equipment to the Health Care Workers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the question is really whether the Government will make them actually available. There are large number of health care workers who are depending on charities and handouts for the necessary PPE. It appears even at the All India Medical Sciences in New Delhi, about 15,000 sets of PPE were supplied from donations given by a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, Mr Rakesh Dwivedi. While his efforts are most laudable, the question remains whether this doesn’t indicate that the Government is unable to fulfil its obligations in law and as directed by the court and what remedial measures need to be taken in court if this continues.