Compensation to families of persons who succumbed to Covid-19: Supreme Court

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Introduction

The contagion of Covid-19 continues to have adverse effects on human health globally. The healthcare system in India has put citizens in a state of misery, showing the total lack of foresight or precautions. Moreover, this second wave of deadly infection has put India in a troublesome state of affairs. The ground-breaking spread of the novel corona virus has been blamed on the Government for failures of political leadership, the neglectful attitude posed by state and local leaders from all parties and even health officials across the country and in addition to that to a more contagious variant that has emerged in India. All this led people not only in India but across the world to falsely believe in recent months that India had defeated Covid-19.

This Covid-19 situation in India has created several problems in terms of economy, healthcare or education but, the healthcare sector has been the most vulnerable sector with respect to contemporary needs in terms of needs arising out of uncertain challenges. India recorded an alarming death toll of total 3.9 lakh deaths due to covid-19. The Supreme Court considered coivid-19 situation in India as a Disaster in its recent judgement. As a result, the Supreme Court ordered ex gratia compensation to be paid to the kin of those who succumbed to covid-19.

Right to Health in India

India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR recognises the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being to humans including food, housing, clothing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of disability, widowhood, unemployment, sickness, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond human control. The right to healthcare in India is not explicitly guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution. However, Article 47 of the Constitution which is a part of Directive Principles of State Policy imposes the following directive on the state: “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.

The right to healthcare in India has by the interpretation of The Supreme Court and various High Courts been included under the vide ambit of Right to Life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

  • Case: Consumer Education & Research Centre (1995)

In this case, the Supreme Court stated: “Therefore, it must be held that the right to health and medical care is a fundamental right under Article 21 read with Articles 39(c), 41 and 43 of the Constitution and make the life of the workman meaningful and purposeful with dignity of person.”

  • Case: Paschim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of West Bengal (1996)

In this case the Supreme Court held:“Article 21 imposes an obligation on the State to safeguard the right to life of every person. Preservation of human life is thus of paramount importance. The Government hospitals run by the State and the medical officers employed therein are duty bound to extend medical assistance for preserving human life. Failure on the part of a Government hospital to provide timely medical treatment to a person in need of such treatment results in violation of his right to life guaranteed under Article 21.” 

  • Case: State of Punjab v. Ram Lubhaya Bagga (1998)

In this case, the Supreme Court held that it was a constitutional obligation of the state to provide healthcare, that being the primary obligation under Article 21 read with Article 47 of the constitution.

Neglect of Healthcare in India

The way of handling this unprecedented crisis has exposed the weakness in public healthcare system in India. This neglect has resulted in the violation of the fundamental rights of not only the poorest and most vulnerable classes and sections but even some of the affluent class of Indian society. This callous attitude is also reflected in the policymaking process which is evident by the fact that our country is yet to receive the new and updated pharmaceutical policy, a draft of which is still pending even when India is facing major health crisis. Moreover, the National Health Policy of 2017 had put forth an increase in health spending to 2.5% of the GDP by 2025, there has been no movement or action taken in this direction. The State failed to ensure oxygen supplies to citizens denying the basic right to life. 

Role of Supreme Court

The Supreme Court took cognizance of the neglect of public health by the National Disaster Management Authority, in violation of its statutory obligation under Section 12 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The Apex Court directed the Central Government to frame detailed guidelines for providing compensation to kin of those who succumbed to Covid-19. The Court said that there is a duty cast on the national authority to prescribe minimum standards of relief. That there is nothing on record that National Authority has issued any guidelines. However, the court mentioned that the amount of ex gratia assistance is left to the wisdom of National Authority as the Court cannot direct a specific amount that is to be paid as compensation.

Suggestions

  • Families of those who succumbed to Covid-19 seeking relief should be ready with all necessary documents and be thorough with the guidelines that National Disaster Management Authority will frame.
  • It is advised that death certificates for those who had died of Covid-19 must include the date and cause of death (CoD).
  • If the family is not satisfied by the cause of death mentioned in the Certificate they are advised to visit the concerned Registrar of their local area.
  • Registrars have been appointed for each local area under Section 7 of the RBD Act, 1969 for registration of births and deaths occurred under their jurisdictional area for assistance.  

Conclusion

There is a reasonably strong argument that is made for the fact that the right to life under Article 21 includes a right to health and medical care/healthcare. The delays in action, the lack of adequate capacity and the lack of responsibility of the Government in this pandemic has been a gross violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India. Now, with the intervention of Judiciary a ray of hope has emerged that justice will be served to those who have lost their loved ones due to denial of basic healthcare and gross violation of Right to life. 

Read Judgement here