At the resumed plenary of the House of Representatives on April 28, 2020, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and two others presented a bill titled ‘Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020’ which aims at empowering the Minister of Health, the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and various other public health and allied institutions to regulate on quarantining, vaccination and prevention of infectious diseases in the country.
The bill scaled the first and second reading before it was stood down due to certain compelling observations by members.
The following week, a bill very similar to the one presented at the House of Representatives but this time titled ‘Protection against Infectious Diseases Bill 2020’ was tabled by Senator Chukwuka Utazi, Chairman Senate Committee on Primary Health and Communicable Diseases.
The Senate version of the bill, like that of the House of Representatives, seeks to repeal the National Quarantine Act 2004 which the sponsors say is not robust enough to deal with national public health emergencies such as Nigeria has witnessed with the Ebola and Lassa fever epidemics and now with the on-going coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate bill passed first reading but further progress on it was shifted to another legislative day.
The move by both chambers of the National Assembly, we believe, was introduced as a result of the unpleasant experiences Nigeria has had to go through with the outbreak of epidemics in recent times which exposed serial deficiencies in the management of our national public health emergencies. It is therefore a welcome development that the National Assembly is seen to be doing something to ensure that our national public health institutions are proactive in dealing with challenges to our public health.
Which is why we find it intriguing that for a bill of such national significance, both chambers of the National Assembly failed to do the most basic due diligence in ensuring that members get the copy of the proposed legislation to study it and make their contributions. This sloppiness was one of the factors that contributed to standing down of the bill in both houses.
Beyond that, the content of the bill also raises some fundamental questions about what it intends to achieve in practical terms.
One of the contentious issues is the seemingly unlimited powers granted to the Minister of Health and the Director-General of the NCDC under the bill. The powers range from compulsory vaccinations, conducting autopsies on corpses of persons who died of symptoms of an epidemic, declaration of premises deemed to contain such epidemics and their take over and conversion to isolation centres. The bill also empowers law enforcement officers to arrest on the orders of the DG NCDC any person or persons who resist being vaccinated or who attempt to leave an isolation centre.
As expected, the bill has met with the objections of a cross section of Nigerians. The main objections as pointed out by legal and constitutional experts as well as opinion leaders have to do with the tendency of the bill to infringe on the fundamental human rights of individuals as enshrined in the constitution.
The powers granted the DG NCDC are discretionary and the enforcement arbitrary without any proof of guilt which should have no place in a democracy such as ours. The provisions run contrary to the guaranteed freedom of association, movement and choice of individuals in the constitution. The bill also does not take into account the religious and cultural practices regarding the internment and disposal of corpses.
Nigerians are also baffled as to why the National Assembly is seeking to rush through this legislation which is almost a replica of the ‘Infectious Disease Act’ 1977 of Singapore, without the benefit of a public hearing which will afford stakeholders in public health, legal and security experts and the general public to make their necessary input.
A legislation of this national import stands to benefit from the real time experience and lessons of Nigerians who have been coping with various epidemics in the country including the current COVID-19.
All said and done, we believe, like most Nigerians, that there is need for such legislation given the identified challenges that have come up in the management of public health emergencies, however, the timing at this period when the country is under lockdown is inopportune.
We believe that the best time for this legislation is when the pandemic has subsided and the public for whom it is intended is able to participate fully in the process.