Stakeholders in health sector observe that the two health-related bills presented to the National Assembly ought to be aligned to ensure that some clauses in the bills will not infringe on the rights of the citizenry.
Bill for an act to repeal the Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Act is one sponsored by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila.
The other is the National Health Emergency Bill sponsored by Sen. Chukwuka Utazi.
The public notes that the bills are a well thought-out move to change the face of the country’s health emergency response sequel to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, most Nigerians, civil society organisations and some legislators, have expressed concern about the bills.
According to them, the provisions of the bills seek to repeal the obsolete Quarantine Act 1926, Cap. Q2 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 and enact the National Health Emergency Bill 2020 but the provisions might not guarantee the rights of the people.
They argue further that the bills give too much powers to certain individuals .
They note that some of the clauses, especially in the House of Representatives version of the bills, remain a “threat” to the fundamental rights of the people.
Speaking on the imperative of the National Health Emergency Bills , Sen. Utazi, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the world in 2020 which saw a total lockdown, ought to be a potent lesson that should get any country prepared for emergency to curtail outbreak of any infectious disease.
Utazi, in his argument, pointed that the use of quarantine to curtail the spread of infectious diseases gained prominence in the 14th Century against the growing need to protect coastal cities from epidemics.
He said that ships from infected ports on arrival in Venice, in the present day Italy, were only cleared for landing after sitting at dock for 40 days.
He stated that consistent with this known practice, the British colonial government in Nigeria enacted the Quarantine Act, which came into force on May 27, 1926.
“This makes it the 94th year of the existence of the act which has never been amended.
“The obsolete nature of the act became obvious with the emergence of COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the world,” he said.
The senator noted that the powers given to the president under the act allowed the presidency to issue regulations for curtailing COVID-19 pandemic.
He said that the exercise of that power had been subject of wide debate among lawyers and public commentators.
“The legislature felt the need for a robust legal framework that can be deployed in response to national health emergencies,” he said.
Disturbed by the irregularities, the senators deemed it fit to co-sponsor the Bill “National Health Emergency Bill 2020,” in a bid to address the gap in tackling outbreak of future infectious diseases.
He noted that the objective of the bill was to repeal the Quarantine Act 1926, Cap. Q2 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 and enact the National Health Emergency Bill 2020.
To him, the move is to make provisions for regulating and preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria of dangerous infectious diseases.
The bill vests administration of the act in the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and covers control of infectious diseases in the country.
It also provides for prevention of international spread of infectious diseases, while making provisions for enforcement generally.
The bill also covered powers of the Nigeria Centre for Disease and Control (NCDC) in dealing with outbreaks and suspected outbreaks of infectious diseases and other miscellaneous provisions.
Gbajabiamila, in his sponsored Bill to repeal the Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases soght to empower NCDC and make it more proactive in the event of any outbreak of infectious diseases.
The bill, however, generated a lot of controversy.
Gbajabiamila said that the NCDC had very little powers to carry out its mandate even though it is a body with great professionals considering the current law in place.
The speaker said that the bill would empower the NCDC to administer necessary vaccines to curb the spread of pandemics.
The lawmaker said that the bill would also make provisions relating to quarantine and regulations for preventing the introduction and spreading of infectious diseases in Nigeria.
He said further that Quarantine Act which had existed for many years “is primitive and weak” to meet the current demands.
He said that the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill would replace the old provisions with modern ones.
The speaker noted that the Quarantine Act provided a penalty of N500 for defaulters, but the Control of Infectious Diseases bill was proposing a penalty of between N200, 000 and N5 million.
According to him, the Infectious Diseases bill also seeks to empower the president and the minister of health to exercise certain necessary powers at first instance during any outbreak.
Concerned Nigerians, however, note that the controversial clauses that attempted to take away the fundamental rights of Nigerians and the overwhelming power it gave to the director-general of NCDC remain a subject of controversy.
Rep. Sergius Ogun, a lawmaker from Edo, said that there was need to be careful with the powers that would be conferred on NCDC to administer vaccines.
According to him, rather than pass the bill and send it to the Senate for concurrence, it should be sent to the relevant committee for more work to be done on it.
Also, a lawmaker, Chris Azugbogu, said that the Quarantine Act involved human and animals.
He noted that there was need to carry all relevant institutions along to ensure maximum productivity.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil society organisations numbering about 39, kicked against the Control of Infectious Disease Bill over alleged threat to human rights.
In a statement by the group, it expressed shock by the House of Representatives’ attempt to give accelerated passage to such a critical legislation such as the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill.
They stated that the proposed bill was a threat to human rights and abuse of power
According to them, the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill vests overbearing discretionary powers on the director-general of NCDC.
They alleged that the bill does not make provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers.
According to the group, the bill empowers the NCDC to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms at will and abuse constitutionally established institutions and processes, without any form of accountability.
“For instance, Section 10 (3) gives the NCDC leadership express powers to use force to enter any premises without warrant.
“Section 19 also confers it with powers to prohibit or restrict meetings, gatherings, and public entertainments.
“Section 15(3e) gives powers to NCDC to authorise the destruction and disposal of any structure, goods, water supply, and drainage systems, among others.
The group demanded that the House of Representatives should subject the bill to public scrutiny by embarking on stakeholder consultations and a public hearing to harness public inputs into the legislation.
They called on the National Assembly to refrain from vesting powers beyond the limit of institutions.
“We must avoid the temptation of vesting absolute powers in public officials as this could be abused and misused to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights.
“Laws must be made for the people and any law that fails to protect the human rights of the people as guaranteed in the constitution must be rejected in its entirety”, the group insists.
Dr Ernest Ereke Director, YIAGA, also noted that some of the provisions of the bill took away the fundamental rights of Nigerians, observing that the public outcry that greeted the it made the lawmakers to have a rethink.
He stated that the engagement with the National Assembly and relevant committee’s on the two versions of the bills was timely.
“We are able to bring the committee and the citizens to a round table and some of the contentious issues were dealt with along with the Senate version.
While agreeing to the imperative of infectious diseas bill, Mrs Yetunde Bakare, Senior Programme Officer, YIAGA Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement, noted that the pandemic had shown that there ought to be a need to review legislation for the management of dangerous and infectious diseases.
She, however, stated that the proposed new legislation, especially the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill in the House of Representatives, showed that the provisions might likely infringe on the rights of citizens.
“We cannot have a law that permits entry and seizure of any property without a warrant and granting a director-general power to requisition any property.
“The bill granting enormous albeit discretionary power to the Ministry of Health and director-general of the NCDC may be prone to abuse,” she stated.
She affirmed that the National Assembly must ensure that the law provides a holistic measure to address contemporary and emerging challenges for the management of infectious diseases.
She also said that there was need to provide an effective oversight on their enforcement to guarantee the protection of citizens’ rights and strengthen institutions.
Some Nigerians, therefore, note that although there is need for a robust national health emergency law, things should be done right.
They express the hope that the new version of the bill, when passed into law, will provide a human rights complaint system, a robust and detailed framework for quarantine, isolation, testing and identification of infected and the treatment of infected persons.
They also called for the speedy passage and ascent to the bills by the president to enable the nation to plan well for its healthcare system to be proactive in crisis situations and not always be swayed by reactive activities.
Source: NAN Features