In response to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic the National Assembly is considering the passage of the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill and the National Health Emergency Bill. However, there have been contrasting opinions about the viability of the bills and if they provide a robust legal framework for managing national health emergencies. This informed the citizens’ town hall hosted by Yiaga Africa and other Civil Society Organizations with support from the European Union to access expert and stakeholders opinions on if the bills safeguard human rights and public health.
Stakeholders during the citizens’ town hall aired on Channels Television on Monday 8th June shared contrasting views about the bill, especially as regards existing Acts that could serve similar purposes. The Quarantine Act of 1926 and the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) Act of 2018 are such existing legislation that could serve a similar purpose rather than the new proposed bills. Stakeholders also raised the contentious aspect of the bills that have to do with the right to liberty, freedom of association and assembly, arrests without warrant of violators amongst other concerns raised.
Defending the consideration of the bill, Senator Chukwuka Utazi who sponsored the Nationa Health Emergency Bill in the Senate insisted that the bill is very necessary and timely because there are gaps that are existing and we need to fill them. He said the bills are opened to reviews and improvement in order to ensure Nigeria has a legal framework to tackle pandemic. According to him, there is a need for a legal framework as the country cannot continue to depend on executive order saying we are in a democratic system and not a military regime.
The Nigeria Medical Association also quizzed the need for the bill and the urgency in which the National Assembly intend to pass the bill. The association also interrogated the public outcry about the bill and what can be done to assuage the anxiety of the people. Speaking through its head of advocacy Henry Ewunono, Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) argued that Nigeria needs a strong law to handle health emergencies that will in one way or the other curtail liberties of citizens. He however said if the National Assembly has decided to proceed with the bill without consulting, the NMA would not be part of it.
Also speaking during the Townhall is Bukky Shonibare, Executive Director of Girl Child Africa who also argued that Nigeria needs a bill to control, manage the spread of infectious diseases in Nigeria. She said the Quarantine act of 1926 is archaic and can no longer serve the interest of Nigerians, especially with current realities.
Despite the need for the bill, she asked that ‘to what extent does it promote, protect or respect human rights. As a matter of fact revealed that having done an analysis of the bill, at least seven fundamental human rights guaranteed by the constitution is being violated by the bill. She said the bill must also protect the vulnerable groups like women, People Living with Disability, Older Women amongst others. The bill according to her even if it’s going to infringe on human rights must be reasonable, necessary, and proportionate.
Echoing similar thought, founder and chief executive officer of Cedar Seed Foundation, Lois Auta said, when it comes to Infectious Diseases, Persons With Disabilities (PWD) are most vulnerable. Despite having over 20 million PWDs in Nigeria, they are not considered in the Infectious Diseases Bill in terms of accessibility to health care and others, she said.
Human rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) Femi Falana, who joined the meeting via Skype described the bill as illegal saying the bill is superfluous, unnecessary, unwarranted and unconstitutional therefore it should not be passed. He posited that the bill is bound to fail ‘because if it is passed, it is going to be challenged.’ ” I would like to suggest that the National Assembly to seek sound legal advice so that we do not waste precious resources on a law that is likely to fail or declared null and void,” Falana said.
On her own part, Aanu Rotimi, Program Manager, Health Reform Foundation said, we must look at this issue from a holistic point of view looking at if the bill addresses preparation for health emergencies rather than just responding to health emergencies. She also asked if the bills build a health system that is resilient and looks into the future and not about now.
She raised concerns about the existing legal framework on health emergencies that are not being implemented. According to her, we need to analyze why previous similar legislation is not working instead of adding more to it.
Also, Osai Ojigho, Country Director of Amnesty International in Nigeria questioned the legality of the bill. She said beyond the infringement of human rights, the part of the bill that says a person could be forcibly arrested, quarantined, and vaccinated is worrisome noting that it cannot be challenged by anyone.
“You cannot even take it to the court for review, you cannot challenge the power of the Director-General which means that your right for a review doesn’t even exist, no individual or institution should have such power,” Ojigho noted. She said on the part of Amnesty International, the bill as it is should not stand, and that AI demands a complete overhaul.
Legal practitioner Ayo Obe said the National Assembly should have consulted with the NCDC to identify existing gaps before coming out with a proposal of the bill saying they are putting the cart before the house. She, however, agreed with the position of reviewing the legislation act or come up with either and an amendment to the NCDC or a replacement to the quarantine act.
On the issue of infringement on fundamental human rights of freedom of movement, Ayo Obe a legal practitioner said if a person has an infectious disease, then the person should not be allowed to go about and infect others. “To say it is against the fundamental human rights doesn’t really answer the question because we all don’t want to be infected,” Obe said