Posted in Legislative Research on Apr 08, 2020
The bill was drafted to substitute the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law (1995). In this piece, we will look at improvements to the existing law, as well as weaknesses of the bill.
In the existing law, there is no central committee or body to supervise the various tasks it sets out. This can slow the response to an outbreak of communicable disease, whether classified as epidemic or a notified disease, where coordination across multiple government entities is required. Forming a new committee will consume time if formed in an ad hoc every time a new health emergency is identified - frequent changes can cause unnecessary delay. In the new bill, there is a Central Committee for the Prevention and Control of Communicable Disease and International Public Health Emergency and this may compensate a weakness of the existing law in responding to an outbreak.
Clarifying overlapping provisions
Concerning communicable disease, the existing law says it overrides the Myanmar Public Health Law (1972); however, it is unknown about whether it also overrides other laws like the Natural Disaster Management Law (2013). In the new bill, Article 44 claims that only this law will be used for the case of communicable disease. Thus, this can avoid conflict with other laws and avoid overlapping powers, hopefully restricting the arbitrary use of whichever laws best fit an official’s preconceived objectives.
If the communicable disease happens or is suspected, the head/members of household, employers or the “person in charge” must report to the prescribed departments quickly and the law prescribes fines if people do not do this. Here, we need to find an appropriate balance between public health and individual rights. Although public health is important, re-establishing a culture of surveillance in our society, which is trying to move on from decades of state surveillance and control, may not be ideal. Forcing citizens to report ‘suspects’ risks criminalizing those who are ill and may give some people a means to act on their prejudices against certain groups. It is also avoiding the real issue, which is the responsibility of the government to educate the public about diseases and encourage them to seek medical attention if they need it.
Health knowledge and spread of communicable disease
The bill prescribes penalties for the ‘intentional’ spread of communicable disease by the affected. This may be right from the point of public health, but it is not clear what ‘intentional’ means. Some, especially the poor, who may not have access to any public health information, may lack health knowledge and must break any quarantine rules to meet their basic needs, to survive. If so, the government should not blame the public for their lack of health knowledge and basic needs. Instead the new law should create a clear obligation on the government to raise accurate public awareness during epidemics, and to ensure people can meet their basic needs – a fundamental duty of government.
Control of press freedom?
Article 20 prohibits any news – with a time-limit - using information about places, persons, items, animals, vehicles, information and actions which might stir fear in the public. For that prohibition, the bill prescribes a fine, and for a second violation, a fine and imprisonment. This provision must be read in the context of this government’s increasing use of various laws in their campaign against free media – a fundamental pillar of a democracy. They continue to use the Telecommunications Law, Official Secrets Act and other legal means to persecute journalists and outlets they perceive as critical. This provision risks creating yet another law that this government can use to silence critics. What if a newspaper writes about a critical shortage of equipment in a local hospital? This may cause people to be fearful, and could therefore be punishable under the new law, but it is clearly public information that citizens have a right to know about.
‘Stirring fear in public’ is a vague and over-broad provision, and based on this government’s track record of persecuting the media, it will likely lead to repression of important public information. Furthermore, whistleblowers who are compelled to leak information which the government is hiding or hesitating to publish, are actually protected in the laws of many other countries, not persecuted.
If a clause such as this is to be included, its main purpose should be to fight fake news or misinformation, and the ‘fear / panic’ terminology removed. For example, if a community or religious leader was to tell people they are safe from the disease if they put a certain vegetable under their arms, or a kind of seed under their tongues, this is extremely dangerous. This kind of unscientific information will place people at risk if they wrongly believe it to be true and continue their daily lives as normal, believing they are protected. Instead of punishing journalists who are working tirelessly to bring the truth to the people, a new law could focus on those who spread misinformation which can directly lead people into harm’s way.
Accurate and up-to-date information is essential during any outbreak and the government has a duty to ensure this, without infringing on people’s rights. The new law should therefore consider a provision that, during an outbreak of communicable disease, all existing internet or media restrictions in place in the country should be immediately lifted so all people have access to the information that might save their lives.