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Covid-19: The Legal And Institutional Challenges In Our Emergency Preparedness

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Lockdown Generation

a lady looking out of a window

Statistics do not lie. The loss of human life due to the Corona pandemic is of an epic proportion. Globally, the toll is estimated to be more than 4 lac with new cases rising in thousands with each passing day. The economically triumphant superpower, United States of America, is facing a crisis in governance, to say the least. Race protests have further compounded the political thicket even as Coronavirus continues to ravage the nation.

Unemployment is rising all over the globe and has ushered in an era of uncertainty and speculation about the future. The lockdown generation, (to describe young people facing multiple shocks from the COVID-19 crisis) according to ILO, is suffering hard. Nations and economies from one coast of the Atlantic to another are struggling to find the mean balance. and predictions are made suspiciously on market behaviour.

The big question is: Will this pandemic usher in a phase of ‘second depression’? Is critical medical care a luxury nowadays? Is ‘governance’ really there for the common man or is it struggling to keep pace with the dangerous spiralling trend of Coronavirus? Strange it may sound, but the future is what we believe it to be. Fear is the single most emotive disruptor in a hedonistic world full of man-made miseries.

This somewhat sham world thrives on a rat race for material pleasures and positions of power and pelf in a fast-melting ‘normal’ world. Both worlds co-exist in a competing way as of now. Fear of an uncertain future largely triggered by the pandemic is driving even star gazers crazy. The majority of the populace seeks solace in private prayers because God houses remain marginally operational and religious fervour is restricted as per prevailing governmental norms in India. What is the basis of our insecurity? Is state response enough? Do these questions continue to challenge us?

Health Issue Or A Governance Challenge?

health, corona, village

Industrial growth and expansion at the beginning of the twentieth century catapulted some countries on the path of fast-paced ‘assembly line’ production and these countries fast managed a favourable balance of trade.

As western nations like the United States, Britain and France went into an aggressive industrializing phase of production; the world witnessed a battle of political ideas among competing forms of ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’.

The policy of massive militarization was pursed by an emerging industrial superpower which ultimately led to two world wars and several minor and major confrontations between nations big and small. As a result, each country started ‘fearing the other’, and even the challenge of an epidemic like the infamous Influenza pandemic of 1918 failed to make any dent on the hubris of global power blocs.

The truth is, mankind has always prepared and continues to prepare for war and battles where bayonets are ready to draw blood at the slightest hint of betrayal. Mistrust among nations reigns even more dangerous now than perhaps it did during the 1920s. Never in history, have powerful nations seriously prepared themselves to brace for a rather insignificant threat in their perception like the one posed by influenza or let’s say, malaria disease.

We live with the deadly HIV, and we might just end up living with Coronavirus. Coronavirus has transformed patterns of social interaction and a visibly dissociated world is in the brink of losing its ‘community feeling’ and sense of  ‘social solidarity. Thinkers like Emile Durkheim at the beginning of the twentieth century with the rise of industrialization predicted that the process will lead to decreasing social solidarity and cohesion.

Cold And Unsympathetic Laws

Commercial and business law in India is so shy to acknowledge the lurking presence of unseen threats and disasters that it contemptuously inserts a ‘force majeure’ clause in agreements and the theme is rarely appreciated seriously by policy planners and lawyers. A ‘force majeure’ clause affords an elbow room to contracting parties to satisfy their mutual obligations in the event of an unforeseen mishappening or disaster beyond human control.

Image Credit: Sam Theodore/ Representational image/Labour laws.

There is a need to explore the various implications of such a clause and the evolving character of legally enforceable contracts during a pandemic. Also, we need to hinge our laws on restorative and empathetic ideals.

The law is blunt, cold, and harsh even during a pandemic. So while a public enterprise may be taken to task for firing an employee during a pandemic by furnishing an illogical reason, this may not be the case with private players and parties.

Poor tenants were at the receiving end during the last few months as a direct fallout of the Corona pandemic.  This may appear unjust and immoral. However, there is nothing illegal in for a landlord to take his due from a tenant as such.

The ethic of civility is a casualty here. John Rawls opined that “As such, ‘the ideal of citizenship imposes a moral, not a legal, duty—the duty of civility—to be able to explain to one another . . . the principles and policies they advocate and vote for’.

Certainly, at times the law is its operation can be quite weird and cut off from the societal needs and aspirations.

Labour laws increasingly face dilution as a legislative tool of Ordinance is being indiscriminately used by central and state governments. For instance, the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, suspends the operation of all labour laws in the state for three years with some exceptions. Under the new legal regime, the working hours could extend even up to 12 hours, and exploitation may be rampant.

Legislative initiatives like these indicate a knee-jerk reaction to contain the debilitating effects on the economy but the focus should be to strengthen the financial support systems and social security measures. Institutions are galore but we need to re-orient these towards a better assessment of unforeseen disasters and mishaps. Challenges can be multifold.

It could be an environmental threat, man-made disaster, the outbreak of an epidemic or anything else, we must not respond at the eleventh hour. After suffering disasters like Tsunami, India went on to draft the National Disaster Management Act, 2005. The urgency of emergency response must antedate the disaster in whichever form and institutional response shouldn’t be postulated.

Vaccine Narrative And Institutional Response

A nurse helping a coronavirus patient
Representational image.

The world is caught in a debate centring on the vaccine for Covid-19. Should this be our immediate priority? Maybe yes, maybe not. We like to live in wishful thinking that maybe once the antidote to the dreadful Coronavirus is discovered, our problems will vanish. Well, this is certainly not the case. The existing policy of the day needs a re-jig.

More importantly, policy thinking and planning need a re-jig. One, it is important to inform the public about the distinctions between ‘palliative care’ ‘quarantine care’, ‘therapy’ and ‘counselling’, and many more such medical terms which are used indiscriminately by healthcare officials, policy planners, and media.

It is important to purposely educate citizens. This can be done by launching massive educative campaigns and youth can be a partner in governance. Remdesivir is being launched under the name ‘Covifor’ in India as a ‘therapy drug’ for emergency care of Covid-19 patients.

Now several patients may presume it to be full-fledged care of Covid-19 but it’s not the case, though certainly, the aim is to reduce the burden on medical infrastructure in the long run. In the case of a homoeopathic drug, Arsenic album 30 being promoted by the Ministry of Ayush as one of the “preventive and prophylactic simple remedies” against Covid-19 it was reported that panic-stricken buyers are flocking to chemists to stock up on the drug touted as a cure for COVID-19.

However, it is no cure. The scientific community worldwide is racing against time to find a vaccine for a one-shot cure of the disease. A vaccine can be an onetime solution for a particular disease but unless the whole healthcare system is not organized and oriented towards empathetic policy planning, we will continue to stare at many more Coronas in the future.

The Annual Financial Statement tendered by Finance Minister on the floor of the parliament allotted Rs. 29774.21 crores for Medical and Public Health purpose and a meagre Rs.1811.0 crore for Water Supply and Sanitation. By contrast, Defence services alone shores up Rs.218368.48 in disbursement charged upon the Consolidated Fund of India. This was the scenario in February when Budget Speech was delivered by the minister of Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman. As per a news report, the PM Cares fund is expected to have collected around Rs. 9677.0 crores. The amount must be disbursed with transparency at the bottom of the process.

Future Holds The Key

Future holds fear and insecurity in its bosom as we engage with multiple threats and marvels of technology take us afar only by a few miles. However, for the survival of mankind, we need to push for a realistic assessment of our emergency preparedness at every level of society and governance.

In the legendary work “Alice in Wonderland” of Lewis Carroll, the central character, Alice, a young girl puzzlingly asks the Mad Hatter about the curious watch which showed only the day of the month and not time, to which he replied that there is nothing strange in it as a watch also doesn’t even show the year.

Alice snapped back saying “but that’s because it stays the same year for such a long time together.” The interaction points towards the different perceptions of time carried by Mad Hatter who advises Alice to have a perception of time from his perspective.

A COVID-19 pandemic is an event in time and we may endure it and another year will dawn in near future but lessons learned from COVID experience must not be thrown overboard and should guide humanity for all times to come. Health emergencies have crippled systems and economies in the past but we need to be prepared better. There cannot be any discrimination at the policy level while chalking a methodology to counter an emergency. An emergency is an emergency. The future is safe and secure only if we astutely deal with current challenges.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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