The infectious diseases bill

THE spontaneous anger triggered by the bill titled Infectious Diseases Control Bill 2020 has subsisted because of the resolve by the leadership of the House of Representatives to stick to its gun on the matter. The bill is being sponsored by Speaker Femi Gbajabiamilla; Pascal Obi, the chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions and Tanko Sununu, chairman of the Committee on Health Services. Overall, the bill wants a repeal of the Quarantine Act and the enactment of the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, which has 82 clauses.

In an attempt to speedily pass it into law, the House had resolved to suspend its Standing Rules despite  opposition from some lawmakers. The bill stipulates a penalty of between N200,000 and N5 million, as well as jail terms for defaulters. It also seeks to empower the president, the Minister of Health, the Director-General (DG) of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to take various decisions, while also canvassing forceful quarantining and vaccination of citizens. For instance, the Minister of Health may proclaim any premises an isolation area for a certain period, with the expiration of such period, in the first instance, at his discretion. The bill also provides that every person on an international journey leaving or arriving Nigeria must have valid evidence of having undergone vaccination against all or any of the diseases.

However, most of the lawmakers complained that they did not have copies of the bill when it surfaced on the floor of the House. That being the case, they did not have the privilege to fully digest, scrutinize and articulate their views in line with the established norms and culture of legislative business. But the leadership of the House has stoutly defended the major lapses that characterised the processes involved in circulating the bill. Yet, to all intents and purposes, the bill is authoritarian. It blatantly seeks to undermine the basic fundamental rights of citizens and the overriding essence of any law, which is the good of the people. It appears to be a deliberate move to curtail the freedoms of the citizenry  and confer awesome powers on top government functionaries.

The clauses on compulsory vaccination and annexation of private property as isolation centres amount to barefaced denial of the intrinsic values of society and democracy which the parliament is unconditionally required to protect, sustain and buoy. We find it curious that those behind the bill seek to confer awesome powers on the NCDC DG who, happily, has expressed reservations on the bill because of its timing and other factors. With the country currently on edge because of the continued spread of Covid-19, there is no need for the distraction which the bill represents. Indeed, there was no justification for the initial speed with which the leadership of the National Assembly wanted to railroad the assembly into passing the bill. We therefore demand that the House fully guarantee and ensure all the procedural trajectory of legislation on the contentious bill. All major stakeholders must be allowed to espouse their views at public hearings and make  inputs into the bill at a more auspicious time in the future. With the prevailing lockdown and other restrictions occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, such a critical phase of legislative business is not feasible at this time. What is needed are concerted efforts to save Nigerians from the disease.

While it is always necessary to be proactive during emergencies, the actions taken by the government should never be at the expense of the rights, comfort and survival of the people. Perceived gross disobedience by a few to any law should not be a license to resort to an overkill. The government is meant to protect life and property and guarantee civil liberties. The bill, in its present form, will impede these objectives. The majority of its provisions are dehumanizing, reprehensible and objectionable.



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