The world-wide Covid-19 outbreak has led to general reviewing and updating of public health laws all over the world. Nigeria is also attempting to tackle this issue by pushing a Bill sponsored by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, to be known as the Infectious Disease Act to help the country handle disease outbreaks.
The proposed bill has passed the first and second readings at the Federal House of Representatives and is supposed to replace the National Quarantine Act by granting special powers to the government to curb disease outbreaks. However, while one would have thought such a Bill would garner public support especially in the middle of the current Covid-19 pandemic, it has sprouted much controversy and outcries from the public.
One such controversy over the Bill is the claim that it was copied from Singapore’s Infectious Disease Act of 1977 almost word for word. This is particularly troubling as it would mean that no research or consulting with relevant bodies on how to fight an outbreak was done before this bill was proposed. The country would thus be relying on a law enacted in the 1970’s by a country with a history of dictatorship at the time.
Another issue of controversy regarding the bill is the powers granted to the Director-General (DG) of the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC). Some of the powers granted seem reasonable, like Section 7 which grants the DG power to order a post-mortem examination of the body of a person who died whilst suspected of being a case or carrier or contact of an infectious disease. Section 10 grants the DG the power to order the owner or occupier of any premises or vessel to disinfect it in the manner and within the time specified in the written notice at the owners personal cost. Section 11 grants the DG the power to order the destruction and disposal of any animal, food or water considered to be the source for the transmission of an infectious disease. Section 12 grants the DG power to prohibit the conduct of a wake over the body of a person who died while suspected of being a case or carrier or contact of an infectious disease and order the collection, removal and disposal of the body under such conditions as he deems fit.
However, there are those that believe the Bill makes the DG an unelected dictator and unjustifiably powerful. A reason for such concern can be found in Section 15 of the Bill which grants the DG power to declare any house an isolation area or order the arrest of any person attempting to leave such an area without a warrant. The meaning of this section is that a police officer, on the order of the DG, can arrest and detain anyone just on suspicion without proof and with no right to a lawyer or hearing in a court of law. This would be an infringement of a persons basic constitutional right of presumption of innocence until proven guilty as well as taking away his right to fair hearing. Considering the notoriety of the Nigerian Police for brutality and abuse of power, granting them the power to detain without proof is a reasonable cause for alarm.
It has also been pointed out that Section 24 of the Bill, which gives the police power to arrest anyone suffering from an infectious disease, is ambiguous enough to be used by the police to arrest you even if the infectious disease isn’t easily communicable or are merely symptoms of the flu or a common cold.
Another area of controversy is Section 8 of the Bill, which makes it compulsory for a doctor or medical practitioner to forgo doctor-patient confidentiality and release medical details and records of any patient to the DG on his request.
Section 20, which gives the DG the power to stop an event or social gathering which may cause the spread of disease during an outbreak, may also be misused to infringe on peoples right to freedom of association. Critics have also pointed out that this power can be misused for political motives.
Another provision of the Bill that has received condemnation is Section 48, which grants the DG power to order certain persons to undergo compulsory vaccination or other prophylaxis. The critics have pointed out that there is nowhere in the world where across-the-board vaccination is made mandatory.
There is also section 55, which gives the DG power to request any book, document or information and also forcefully enter premises without a warrant to obtain such information, threatening freedom of the press.
Another major reason for the general outcry against the passing of the Bill is Section 71 which provides as follows:
“No liability shall lie personally against the Director-General, any Health Officer, any Port Health Officer, any police officer or any authorized person who, acting in good faith and with reasonable care, does or omits to do anything in the execution or purported execution of this Act.”
The summary of this section is that the DG and anyone acting on his orders such as the police, are granted judicial immunity during an outbreak. This power is akin to the power granted the president. The DG and his enforcers shall not be held accountable for what they use the power for. Thus, any misuse of the power such as harassment or unjustified killing will not be tried by a court of law.
There is also the issue of anyone found guilty of an offence under the Bill would be fined about N100,000 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) or be imprisoned for a term not exceeding 6 months. For subsequent offences, the person will be fined N200,000 (Two Hundred Thousand Naira) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding twelve months or both.
Many critics have called upon the lawmakers to apply restraint on the speed of the passing of the Bill and subject it to public hearing for public input.