What's the role of police and profit in public health emergencies ?

For countries like India, handing over the reins of public health responses to the WHO in case of pandemics declared according to the whims and fancies of this discredited body would be suicidal

What's the role of police and profit in public health emergencies ?

Dr Amitav Banerjee

Imagine patients being bound, restrained and subjected to trephining, that is making a hole in the skull to release evil spirits. Imagine these patients being injected with new experimental drugs, without their consent or the consent of their caretakers--all for the benefit of humanity because the patients could harm others!

While such practices were routine in primeval times, these will raise serious ethical issues and outrage today.

However, the recent pandemic witnessed even more serious violations of human rights and ethics due to the panic response of governments but without any public outcry. The Covid-19 pandemic since the beginning drove harsh public health policies which were unheard of even in primeval times and for far more lethal diseases such as plague in the pre-antibiotic era, or smallpox in the pre-immunisation era. Fatalities from these scourges exceeded 40% before the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines.

But for a disease like Covid where the fatality rates are in the range of 0.1% to 0.3%, draconian measures were implemented. Mass vaccination for all, including children and pregnant women, were rolled out even as the vaccines were not time tested but new and experimental with uncertain long-term effects. Vaccine hesitancy, even if genuine, was frowned upon, shamed and stigmatized. The Supreme Court of India to its credit redeemed the judicial process when it recently ruled that vaccines cannot be made compulsory and vaccination status can’t be ground for discrimination.

However, we may not be as fortunate in times to come if the contentious Pandemic Treaty proposed by the WHO and the Public Health Bill proposed by the Government of India come through. The WHO has proposed an international agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. All public health principles and ethics seem to have been abandoned in the proposed Pandemic Treaty.

Dr David Bell, a former WHO scientist, has cautioned that the Pandemic Treaty can lead to perpetual lockdowns and threaten autonomy of nations who sign this treaty.

“Though it doesn’t directly change sovereignty, in effect it does take away the ability of the people of that country to make their own decisions,” he stressed. Such proposals will create a bureaucracy “whose existence is dependent on pandemics,” adds Dr Bell while cautioning, “They will have a very vested interest in finding outbreaks and declaring them potential pandemics. That will ensure that they survive and remain relevant. And it appears that they will make lockdowns a permanent feature of pandemic response.”

The influence of corporates in the decisions taken by WHO have surfaced time and again in the past.

“If you are trying to maximise returns to your shareholders, and you are running a pharmaceutical company, then do not concentrate on getting people physically well so that they develop natural resistance to disease, you better concentrate on selling the product for the disease that they have,” Dr Bell cynically observes.

For countries like India with a large burden of treatable and preventable endemic communicable diseases with far more lethality than emerging viral diseases, handing over the reins of public health responses to the WHO in case of pandemics declared according to the whims and fancies of this discredited body would be suicidal.

While the proposed Pandemic Treaty of the WHO threatens to take away the autonomy of nations, the prospective Public Health Bill 2022, which is expected to be tabled in the monsoon session of Parliament, raises serious concerns about violation of individual autonomy and human rights. The proposed bill is reminiscent of the Nazi era which led to the Nuremberg Trials after WWII.

Most concerning is that the Bill gives powers to the police and the State as is presently being witnessed in China. Fundamental rights of bodily autonomy and civil liberty will be threatened as mandatory medical procedures, forced entry into any premises, forced isolation and quarantine and other such harsh measures have been included in the bill in case of any pandemic or likelihood of any public health emergency. And all this has been proposed in the larger interest of humanity!

The people will be at the mercy of police and bureaucrats who will be immune to any penalty for any arbitrary acts carried out in “good faith”. Aligned with the proposed Pandemic Treaty by WHO the unholy alliance has the potential to assume, “absolute power”.

Let us hope that these proposed treaty and bill are debated at length among civil society and in parliament and views of legal experts and proponents of ethics in public health are obtained in a transparent manner.

One can take inspiration from the words of Justice Chandrachud of the Supreme Court, “States can spread lies, but the citizens must remain vigilant and they have a duty to expose the lies.”

(Dr. Amitav Banerjee, MD, has headed Mobile Epidemic Team of the Armed Forces. Presently, he is Head, Dept of Community Medicine, Dr. DY Patil Medical College, Pune)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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