In this report, SUNDAY ISUWA reflects on the issues as the Senate moves to amend the 94-year-old Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Act.
The Bill for an Act to repeal the Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Act, make provisions relating to quarantine and make regulations for preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria of dangerous infectious diseases, and for other related matters, 2020 (SB. 413) is on the floor of the Senate, awaiting public hearing.
Sponsored by Senator Chukwuka Utazi, Senator Oloriegbe Ibrahim Yahaya and 102 others, the Bill which has passed through first and second reading, is divided into five parts, comprising 70 clauses.
In the Bill, part I (clauses 1 and 2) vests administration of the Act on the director general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Part II (clauses 3-24) covers control of infectious diseases within the Federal Republic of Nigeria; part III (clauses 25-43) provides for prevention of international spread of infectious diseases while part IV (clauses 44-51) makes provisions for enforcement generally, covering powers of the NCDC in dealing with outbreaks and suspected outbreaks of infectious diseases, among others while part V (clauses 52-70) covers Miscellaneous Provisions.
The Bill is to repeal the Quarantine Act 1926, Cap Q2 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, and enact the National Health Emergency Bill 2020, to make provisions for regulating and preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria of dangerous infectious diseases, and for other related matters.
But so many issues have been raised concerning the bill by some stakeholders.
Civil Society Organisation, Yiaga Africa, admits that the effort to repeal the Quarantine Act for a modern and comprehensive legislation for addressing public health emergencies is long overdue.
“The powers of the director general of the NCDC under the Act are capable of defeating the purpose of the Bill,” an analysis of the bill by Yiaga Africa and endorsed by its director of programmes, Cynthia Mbamalu said.
According to Yiaga Africa, the Bill is full of inconsistencies with the Constitution, especially fundamental rights provisions.
“These issues must be addressed by the Senate while considering the Bill to prevent the harvest of litigations with the risk of several provisions being struck down in future,” the CSO said.
LEADERSHIP reports that the use of quarantine to curtail spread of infectious diseases gained prominence in the 14th century against the growing need to protect coastal cities from epidemics.
Consequently, ships from infected ports on arrival in Venice, present day Italy, were only cleared for landing after sitting at dock for 40 days. Consistent with this known practice, the British Colonial Government in Nigeria enacted the Quarantine Act, which came into force on May 27, 1926.
This is the 94th year of the existence of the Act and it has never been amended.
Analysts say being in existence for almost a century, the obsolete nature of the Quarantine Act became obvious with the emergence of COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the world, including Nigeria.
By the powers given to the president under the Act, President Muhammadu Buhari issued regulations for curtailing COVID-19, and the exercise of that power has been subject of wide debate among lawyers and public commentators.
Consequently, with the debate, the legislature felt the need for a robust legal framework that can be deployed in response to national health emergencies which led to the introduction of the National Health Emergency Bill 2020.
But some Nigerians have raised issues concerning the Act which provides unchecked delegation of legislative powers.
It was gathered that the eight-section Quarantine Act has only six substantive provisions, and surprisingly there is no provision of the Act directly providing for prevention or control of infectious diseases.
Instead, the Act (in section 4) empowers the president to make regulations for such prevention and control.
The implication, according to analysts, is that the legislature has no input in the prevention and control of dangerous infectious diseases but delegates powers to the president to make laws to that effect through regulations.
“The Quarantine Act can best be described as “Dangerous Infectious Diseases (Regulation Making Powers) Act 1926.
“There is nothing in the Quarantine Act subjecting Regulations made by the president to legislative scrutiny. It is strange that a legisl tion that delegates almost all legislative powers under it to the executive does not make provision for any report by the executive to the legislature for approval.
“This is a sad case under the Quarantine Act. The penalty for contravention of Regulations made by the president is N200 or imprisonment for a term of six months or to both (section 5).
“This has become grossly inadequate for any purpose, be it punitive or deterrent, taking modern realities into account, especially inflationary trends and the current value of the Naira,” Cynthia Mbamalu said.
Other Nigerians who have been speaking on the bill said there is no express provision in the Act relating to the manner of handling infected persons and their treatment.
“The Act makes no provision for disposal of corpses of infected persons. There is no provision in the Act regarding surveillance of infectious diseases and measures to prevent outbreak,” an Abuja based analyst, Tikikus Simon, who corroborated Yiaga Africa report, said.
It was gathered that the Bill, in clause 69, empowers the minister to make regulations for carrying out the purposes and provisions of the Bill for which he is responsible.
It is also interesting to note that the director general of the NCDC is also empowered to make orders relating to the various powers given to him under the Bill.
Unlike the Act that prescribes penalties for contravention of regulations made by the president, the Bill creates several offences and prescribes penalties.
“While the fine for contravention of Regulations under the Act is N200; the minimum fine under the Bill is N50, 000 and the maximum is N2, 000,000.00.
Some lawmakers have argued that the stated amounts are the maximum for offences, thereby giving room for discretion for imposition of lower fines while sentencing under the Bill.
“The Bill is a remarkable improvement on the Act on the adequacy of fines,” an analyst, Bala Musa said.
While the Quarantine Act prescribes imprisonment for 6 months, the Bill has various terms of imprisonment for various offences, the minimum and maximum being six months and two years respectively.
Still, as Nigerians calls on the lawmakers to ensure a total overhaul of the bill, Clause 1 which vests responsibility for administration of the Bill in the director general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) is being questioned.
“It is improper to vest administration of legislation in an officer of an institution over the institution under which the officer exists,” an analysis by Yiaga Africa said.
Looking at the shortcomings of the bill, there is no qualification or requirement for appointment of a Health Officer; instead, unchecked powers are given to the director general to appoint.
Also, provision for arrest without warrant in clause 3(9) (b) does not include how the arrested person should be treated, including his destination and the timeframe within which to take him there.
The rule of law is very central to good governance. As such for pundits, legislative response in a pandemic outbreak like Covid-19 entails a timely review of existing laws; updating them to meet contemporary and emerging challenges and effective oversight on their enforcement.
The laws should clearly provide how these would be achieved, it should be clearly elucidated in such a way that infractions of the right of the people are minimally reduced.
The demand for the legislature to redraft the Control of Infectious Diseases bill under consideration to secure the ownership of the people seems to be gaining momentum.