Health emergency in Pakistan and writ of the State

We should not make sequel of the blunders committed by China, Italy, Iran and others

In wake of COVID-19 catastrophe throughout Pakistan and the dizzying numbers of reported cases, unreported deaths and a-symptom carriers of virus have changed the mind of the government from not locking down the country to locking it down entirely by using armed forces in aid of civil powers through operation of article 245 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan and section 131-A Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr PC).

The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which had already declared a health emergency under section 16(A)(1) of the National Disaster Management Authority (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) Act, 2010, later on ordered under the same law a Public Holiday throughout the province from 24th March to 28th March.

The public holiday means a province wide quarantine and shut down of all businesses except those who are playing a role in halting the spread of the virus and those working as engine of the state machinery.

While these near-draconian measures may prove instrumental in ceasing the spread of the epidemic, nonetheless, we cannot shut eyes on the bleak reality of the economic condition of the majority. There are many who earn their food through everyday labour and save the remaining amount to pay utility bills. If it is suffering at the end of the day, does it matter if it comes from the virus itself or the starvation caused by measures to curb its spread?

In wake of the problems likely to erupt to the labour/workers and the financially unsound people Sindh Government under Sindh Epidemic Diseases Act, 2014 announced that workers shall be paid salaries in full be respective workers and the closure may be considered as paid leave. Any one not complying with which be punished under section 188 Pakistan Penal Code, with imprisonment of 6 month and fine.

Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is hesitant to use such powers under The West Pakistan Epidemic Diseases Act, 1958, An outdated counterpart of the Sindh’s law which is enacted to effectively eliminate and cope with any situation arising out of Epidemics. While it is partially executed in prevention of COVID-19 by taking the following preventive measures: First, Inspection of any person suspected of the epidemic. Second, Restricting inter-district travel throughout KP. Third, Taking and declaring places Quarantine zone to accommodate patients.

One instance of humanitarian and positive execution of the law is that a Law Professor who after returning from England, diagnosed positive for COVID-19 in his house situated in Hayatabad, Peshawar and quarantined him along with his family and neighbours. Police has sealed the street and helps those quarantined with their necessities i.e. buying food and medicines etcetera. However, the government of KP fails to give any relief to the poor who live hand to mouth.

In time of scarcity, Government has blindfolded itself to hike in prices of basic necessities like flour, sugar and other consumable in contravention of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Food Stuff Control Order, 1975. While in times of provincial need, Pharmacies withheld precautionary stuff or raised prices up to 10 times of masks, sanitizers and hydroxy chloroquine phosphide, medicine used to cure Malaria, after President Donald Trump declared it to be the cure of COVID-19. Due to rise in prices and scarcity of items in wake of COVID-19, A case was filed against Indian government, in the High Court of Kerala, titled as Justice Brigade V. Union of India. The court partly allowed the writ petition saying the government should prioritize security and safety of citizens over anything with the following further direction to it:

“ take measures to control the price rise of the essential commodities, viz, face masks and hand sanitizers, and ensure adequate supply of the said commodities in the State of Kerala”

Doctrine of State Necessity in used and spoken of in other contexts, but whatever measures are taken to curb spread of the virus, in violation of constitutional and legal rights of individual is actual implementation of it. States were made to protect human life/interests and after its inception its purpose is to protect public interests by using its ultimate authority i.e. taking pacific or coercive measures against individuals for the better good of the majority of population. Even if it in shape of the unique law of The West Pakistan Epidemic Diseases Act, 1958 or its other provincial counterparts which silences and excludes all general and special laws when it comes into play to protect the majority even if it violates individual rights.

The government being a welfare state is responsible to provide for security and maintain those who makes a living through daily wages or labour. They are likely to suffer due to famine of daily necessity and safety items. It is also the duty of government to provide inexpensive testing of COVID-19 with uniform prices of in both public and private sector hospitals and laboratories to encourage everybody to come forth for treatment irrespective of their financial condition.

While the epidemic remains in existence, people are expected to be responsible and duty bound under National Disaster Management, Act 2010. The following Acts are defined and made punishable:

  • Becoming an obstruction in measures taken in execution of the act, punishable with punishment up to one year or fine or both. If lives are lost then it may extend to two years or with fine or both.
  • False warning/ alarm of the severity or magnitude of a disaster, punishable with imprisonment up to one-year or with fine or both
  • False claims to get any benefit from the government is punishable with imprisonment which may extend to two-years or fine or both.

We have examples of countries where were hit by COVID-19 before us and the mistakes turned fiascos multiplying spread of the disaster and the events which turned into shopping mall anarchies. We should not make a sequel of the blunders committed by China, Italy, Iran and others and prepare for what is likely to come hit us and prepare for the worst.

COVID-19 like medieval armies has surrounded our country and laid siege. While we are confident that our walls, shiny armor, sharp swords will help us fight against it. But at the end of the day, like in any great siege of the history, it is the availability of food and other necessities to the besieged which is the deciding factor in making it a success or a defeat.

The author is a Human Rights Activist and a Lawyer based in Peshawar & Islamabad. He works as a Partner in Kakakhel Law Associates, has studied Public Policy from University of Massachusetts and Corporate Law from Harvard University. He tweets as @NoumanMuhib. He can be reached on

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