By Munachi UGOCHUKWU
A 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 (HB. 836)
Bill type: House Bill
- Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila (Lagos: APC) – Speaker, House of Representatives
- Tanko Sununu (Kebbi: APC) – Chairman, House Committee on Healthcare Services
- Pascal Obi (Imo: APM) – Chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions
This Bill seeks to Repeal the Quarantine Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 (originally enacted in 1926) and enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Act, make provisions relating to quarantine and make regulations for preventing the introduction into and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.
First Reading: 28/04/2020
Second Reading: 28/04/2020
Committee Referred to: Committee of the Whole
Status: Awaiting Committee Report
The Bill which has 82 sections, seeks to empower the President, the Minister of Health as well as the Director-General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (DG NCDC), and the institutions they head, to make regulations on quarantining, vaccination and prevention of infectious diseases in Nigeria.
The scope of the bill encompasses the Responsibility for its Administration which is charged under the DG NCDC subject to any general or special directions by the Minister of Health; the Powers of the President under Part 2; Powers of the DG and Port Health Officers with respect to International Spread of Infectious Diseases; Powers of the Minister of Health; Additional Provisions on Vaccination and other Prophylaxis in Part IV; Offences and Enforcement which are mostly enforceable by the NCDC via authorized health officers or a police officer; and a list of Infectious Diseases and Dangerous Infectious Diseases categorized across four schedules.
Some of its key provisions are:
- The Act provides for an “Advisory Committee” to advise the DG/Centre. The NCDC Act however, already provides for an “Advisory Council” for similar purposes.
- The Act (like the Quarantine Act) empowers the President to restrict “lockdown” in any part of Nigeria during a public health emergency. While this provision does not take cognizance of Nigeria’s Federal system and Governors in its administration, the President may exercise such powers through the declaration of a “State of Emergency”.
- It empowers the DG to order post-mortem on any corpse suspected to have died an infectious disease. This has religious and cultural implications as there were no consultations with religious and ethnic groups/sects that hold reservations towards autopsies either during the preparation of the bill or at a public hearing. The former is advised as it reduces the chances of hiccups in public reception of bills even before its introduction.
The DG can order mandatory test or surveillance on anyone. He is also empowered to designate “any premise” as an isolation area.
The DG can order closure, disinfection and marking of any premise that may lead to an outbreak or where someone has been infected.
The DG, if he thinks it would further spread an infectious disease, can stop any meeting, gathering or entertainment from holding (for 14 days). This order can be appealed to the Minister of Health.
Destruction of building or materials that have been infected. In case of building, order of court must be obtained.
The DG can prohibit the entry into Nigeria of any person(s) in order to prevent or curb spread.
DG may order for certain class of persons to undergo vaccination.
The DG may order that at any time without warrant and with such force as may be necessary - enter, search inspect, search any premise/ship/conveyance etc - seize or take samples of substances.
- The bill defines a range of offences relating to refusal to quarantine, escaping from quarantine/isolation, deliberate infection, obstruction of duty of any person empowered by the Act, and so forth. This is necessary as a means of capturing the scope within which actions are held to account during outbreak and to which they deserve sanctions. A police officer or a “Health Officer” authorized in writing by the DG may arrest any person who has committed offences under certain sections of the Act. The “general” penalty for many of offenses in the Act is N100, 000 and/or 6 months’ imprisonment. There are other special penalties in certain sections to the tune of N1M and N2M. Also, The Magistrate Court is empowered to try all offenses in the Act.
- It provides protection to whistleblowers made pursuant to any information disclosed in good faith around administration of the Act.
- The bill also provides that every person arriving or leaving Nigeria must get vaccinated for a certain range of diseases. This is similar to the yellow card/certificates obtained before international travel in accordance with WHO international travel guidelines in 2016.
A Senate version of the bill, the National Health Emergency Bill, was sponsored by Senator Chukwuka Utazi (PDP, Enugu State), who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Primary Health and Communicable Disease and has passed its first reading. It awaits a second reading after the distinguished senators have availed themselves of a copy and its contents.
Federal laws addressing public health issues in Nigeria are fragmented and obsolete as seen in the deficiencies of the Quarantine Act, 1926. Despite being unduly hurried in its passage, the necessity of the bill cannot be overstated in its bid to reposition the NCDC to be efficiently and effectively responsive and proactive as opposed to being reactive to incidences of outbreaks. The bill is relevant as it provides contemporary updates to the country’s obsolete Quarantine Act and its subsidiary regulations and consolidates the extant NCDC (Establishment, etc) Act of 2018.
The provisions of the bill, which speaks not only to coronavirus but all infectious diseases, are however copied almost verbatim from the Singaporean Control of Infectious Disease Act of 1976 (the gazetted copy of the bill like its uncredited template, is titled “Control of Infectious Diseases Act”) and do not seem to be specially adapted to suit our national and sub-national peculiarities, in part. The absence of Lassa fever and Ebola in the bill’s schedules lists is a further testament to the absence of or deficiency in consultations or consideration of the country’s true public health realities in the development of the bill.
The bill has the potential to threaten human rights and abuse of power as it vests overbearing discretionary powers on the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), while making no provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers. These discretionary powers conferred on the Director-General, any health officer, any Port Health officer, any police officer or any authorized person can be abused if wielded by the wrong hands for political and economic reasons if not properly checked and the provision of Section 71, absolving them of any liability when ‘acting in good faith and with reasonable care’ is ambiguous and subject to misuse, manipulation, and misinterpretation for personal gain.
The development of the bill runs contrary to the principles of effective and inclusive law-making as it fails to gain inputs through wide consultations with stakeholders for mainstreaming and collective harmonization of the final outcome.
The bill failed to get citizens’ buy-in by not adequately sensitizing and educating the public on the repercussions and benefits of having a vaccination (if and when one is developed) and other provisions of the bill.
There is a likelihood of worsening inter-agency conflicts and jurisdictional rivalries among government and security agencies in the country as Sections 55 and 57, confer the power of investigation and arrest on any health officer authorized in writing by the Director-General or a police officer.
Lastly, the bill seems too central in its administration. While providing a coordination center, the bill fails to seek establishment of state CDCs through which the national directives could be stepped down to the sub-national level and from which state-based peculiarities could be identified and adapted to nationally prescribed guidelines.
While public health laws are necessary, they should balance private rights with the public health interest in an ethical and transparent way. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), public health powers should be based on the principles of public health necessity, reasonable and effective means, proportionality, distributive justice, and transparency. As important and urgent as the problem which the bill was intended to cure is, there are issues of public perception, which prompts the need for sensitization and education of the public on the bill’s provisions and the wide consultation of stakeholders for effective buy-in, inclusiveness and a comprehensive intervention on the public health menace of infectious diseases.
The government has a responsibility towards public safety and while the threat of infectious diseases may be potent, measures deployed for their control must be within the ambits of the law and must protect citizens from willful abuse of rights and thus, must be subjected to public scrutiny for exhaustive debates on its legality, constitutionality and effectiveness. A bill of this nature deserves adequate time for thorough deliberations by the legislature and wider stakeholders, given its wide ramifications to life and livelihood. Thankfully, the Senate President has stated that there would be a public hearing to this effect.
In truth, if a vaccine is ready, proven to be safe and effective and commercially available at an affordable cost, Nigerians may want to be vaccinated.