Public Health Legal Preparedness for crises such as COVID-19 is a core component of the health system response. However, the implementation of health legal preparedness differs between low- and middle-income (LMIC) countries as reported by the World Health Organisation.
Public Health Legal Preparedness plays an important role in the overall functioning of the health system during pandemics such as the current COVID-19. This is partly because legal assistance during a disaster is central to any response plan. During emergencies, healthcare providers operate under challenging conditions that may require deviation from existing laws, necessitating the development and awareness of strategies to protect against legal liabilities.
Individual Needs Vs Common Good
A common aspect of Public Health Legal Preparedness is balancing individual need and the common good. The need to protect individual freedom arises in all types of emergency situations but has significant implications on the management of pandemics like COVID-19. To deal with such implications, the Ugandan primary source of law, the 1995 Constitution under Article 43 establishes a limitation to some individual freedoms like assembly, privacy, movement and many others for public good. Some of these limitations have already formed part of our new lives; we indefinitely cannot have political rallies, go to church, travel out of the country until we efficiently suppress the Corona Virus. Nevertheless, during pandemics (mostly periods preceding the pandemic), governance that assures a legal balance between the needs of the public and those of the individual enhances public trust in the authorities’ ability to manage the situation. This is exactly why it is pertinent to define obligations, rights and to establish roles and standards during the current crisis.
What the law in Uganda provides for;
To solve the challenge of limited information regarding legal preparedness for the COVID-19 crisis, this article discusses the relevant provisions of the Public Health Act Cap. 281 (Uganda) and how it has been adhered to by relevant authorities in promoting Public Health Legal Preparedness.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation as the World Health Organisation has reported it. Its contagious and deadly character makes it a notifiable disease, a term that surfaces in Section 10 of the Public Health Act Cap 281.
“A notifiable disease is any disease that is required by law to be reported to government authorities.”
The collation of information allows the government authorities to monitor the disease and provide early warning of possible outbreaks. On 5th March 2020, in the United Kingdom, a statutory instrument was made into law that adds COVID-19 to the list of notifiable diseases and SARS-COV-2 to the list of notifiable causative agents. This change was made by amending the Health (Notification) Regulations 2010.
In Uganda, the Public Health Act 1935, Cap 281 is a law that makes provision with respect to the protection of public health in Uganda. It provides rules relative to, among other things, prevention and suppression of diseases. The Act also defines ample regulation-making powers of the Minister of Health in times such as the COVID-19 crisis.
Here’s something that you should think about;
On 7th March 2020, the Minister of Health, Hon. Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng issued a press statement on Uganda’s enhanced measures to prevent importation of Novel Corona Virus Disease COVID-19. The question is: Was she operating under any existing laws of Uganda?
The answer is simply, YES!
Part 3 of the Public Health Act, specifically Sections 10 and 11 give the Minister of Health powers to both declare that a disease is a “notifiable disease” also power to make rules as to the prevention or suppression of the disease. Therefore, the Ministry of Health operated and continues to operate within the ambit of the law (intra vires) in its continued measures that include mandatory screening and testing of suspected people, advisories on social distancing and quarantine among others.
Part 4 of the Public Health Act gives medical officers powers;
1. To inspect any premises believed to be accommodating a person suffering or exposed to the virus.
2. To give notice to the occupier(s) of any facility requiring them to disinfect their facility or do the disinfection of the facility with or without the consent of the owner of the facility, if that facility is believed to pose a health threat to the public.
3. To effect mandatory taking of persons believed to be infected to a place suitable for reception of the infectious sick if in the opinion of the medical officers, the victim is nor being treated or nursed sufficiently in their current residence.
From the above, we can legitimize the Ministry’s actions of drawing and testing samples of suspects, managing victims found to be COVID-19 positive, among other actions so far taken.
If the situation worsens (unfortunately), the Minister of Health will have to exercise more power vested in her office under Section 29 of the Public Health Act; Power to regulate which hospitals are to be used specially for the reception of persons suffering from COVID-19. Power to manage all cases of deaths caused by the COVID-19.
Local authorities are mandated to execute the Minister’s rules and report any updates expeditiously to Ministry officials pursuant to Part 5 of the Act. The President has Statutory power to order a complete lock-down and indefinitely suspend any travel, local or International if the situation worsens.
Penalties and Punishment for not cooperating with Government Measures:
The Public Health Act provides for several punishments for people who act contrary to the measures communicated by the Ministry. These are under Sections 20, 21, 22, 23 and 35 which include fines and imprisonment. For example, if a person suffering from the COVID-19 wilfully exposes herself/ himself without proper precautions against spreading the disease to the public, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine determined by court, or imprisonment not exceeding 3 months or both punishments, and in addition, be ordered by court to pay for any losses incurred by any claimants in disinfecting their affected properties. Section 171 of the Penal Code Act Cap 120 prescribes liability on conviction to 7 years in prison.
Remember, such punishments can be enforced against you. Therefore;
#StaySafe #StayAtHome #COVID19UG