Sat, 05 Apr 2003

'Epidemic laws must not violate human rights'

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

An activist warned the government on Friday against abusing the rights of patients or suspected patients of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) following the enforcement of the epidemic law to contain the disease.

The Law No. 4/1984 gives the government the authority to carry out necessary measures in the handling of SARS patients or suspected patients.

Human Rights Activist Daniel Pandjaitan of the Legal Aid Institute said the government must ensure that measures against SARS would not sacrifice human rights of people who may be suffering from the mysterious flu-like illness.

"The government must first of all inform a person allegedly infected with SARS about his or her diagnosis, and allow him or her to get a second opinion from his or her personal doctor," he said.

If the person is declared a SARS patient and isolated, the government must allow him or her to be visited by his/her family, doctor and lawyer, he added.

The government must provide compensation for SARS patients during their quarantine period.

"Without those treatments, the government will certainly violate human rights of persons allegedly infected with SARS. The latter can sue the government," he said.

But he agreed that if a person who was declared a SARS patient refused to be quarantined, the government could isolate the person by force.

Article 4 of the 1984 law stipulates that measures to tackle epidemic disease include investigation, medical checkup, treatment, isolation and quarantine, prevention and vaccination, destroying sources of the disease, treatment of corpses and distribution of information to the public.

Article 10 stipulates that the government is responsible to conduct measures to tackle epidemic diseases.

The law also requires people to report any suspected patient who shows symptoms of the epidemic to nearest village head or health clinic as stipulated in article 11.

In addition anyone who suffers from the measures to control an epidemic has the right to compensation, which is further ruled in a government regulation, the law says.

The Ministry of Health has repeatedly said the implementation of the epidemic law was needed to provide a legal basis for the government's efforts to fight SARS.

"We need to protect people from the danger of SARS," Indriyono, Director General for Epidemiology Surveillance, Immunization and Health at the Ministry of Health said on Friday.

So far, around 80 people have died worldwide due to SARS and over 2,300 people have been infected with the ailment.

Minister of Health Achmad Sujudi issued on Thursday a Ministerial Decree No. 424/2003 which declares SARS a national epidemic threat, thus automatically enforcing the epidemic law.

The epidemic law, according to Indriyono, was issued in 1984 to allow the government to take necessary measures against epidemic diseases such as cholera and pests that were rampant at that time.

The law was enacted also to meet any changes in the government administration structure, such as the establishment of health clinics.

The law also allows the minister to decide that a disease is an epidemic and smooth the way for the imposition of the law on a new epidemic disease, which was perhaps not named in the previous epidemic Law No. 6/1962.

Indriyono promised that the government would not enforce the epidemic law arbitrarily.

"We'll decide persons as SARS patients, suspected or observed patients based on symptoms they display," he said.

"We'll temporarily isolate persons returning from SARS-prone countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, who have fever over 38 Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) and who have difficulty breathing and a severe cough."