APRIL 28 — I read with interest Surina Shukri's “Governing in the post-Covid era.” 

Among others, the writer argues that from “a public health perspective, there needs to be improved data sharing between government ministries and agencies, and the private sector. This can facilitate better detection and containment measures, timely decision making, tighter epidemic management, and improved allocation of public healthcare resources.”

I wish to add that from the same perspective as well, a country’s health infrastructure is the most effective long-term preparedness strategy for public health emergencies or crises.

Which is why over the years the experts have been promoting for a robust health infrastructure in every country. This of course means the physical structures of public health agencies, clinics and hospitals and the human resources to operate them, together with improved data sharing between government ministries and agencies, as Surina argues.

But that's not the end of the matter. Health infrastructure must include the legal infrastructure — the laws that not only empower but limit government action concerning health.

The law is an indispensable tool in health promotion and protection. The law is such an integral part of public health that public health professionals, like the DG of Health and his “four generals,” are constantly and regularly working with the law. Measures such as the movement control order (MCO) are not only health measures but legal as well.

The law does matter for effective health practice. Yet many countries lack the basic laws and regulations needed to comply with international legal instruments, particularly the International Health Regulations (IHR), which are binding on all WHO Member States. Some laws are simply outdated or poorly designed. (Geraldine Marks-Sultan et al, “National Public Health Law: A Role for WHO” ). 

The laws for effective health practice — often referred to as public health law — are often perceived as an arcane set of rules buried deep within indecipherable statute books and regulatory codes. It does not have to be this way. The law can be transformed to become an essential tool for creating the conditions for people to be healthy. (Lawrence O Gostin, “Public Health Law Reform,” Am J Public Health 2001 September; 91(9): 1365–1368)

Malaysia has a number of statutes that govern matters pertaining to health and designed to protect and promote public health. There are laws to regulate and control health institutions; set standard of hygiene and purity in the sale and use of food; and ensure that drugs meet the appropriate standard of quality, safety and efficiency with adequate control over the labelling and promotion.

There are also laws designed as preventive and protective measures to be taken at workplaces to safeguard the safety and health of the workers and others. (Nik Salidah Suhaila Nik Saleh, “The Role of Law in Improving the Standard of Health Care in Malaysia” in Studies in Shariah and Law, 2005)

In respect of infectious diseases, there is the Prevention and Control of Infectious Disease Act 1988 (PCIDA) which is the principal statute that provides for the prevention and control of infectious diseases in Malaysia.

The PCIDA, however, has remained the same since its enactment in 1988 and is outdated and antiquated, which unfortunately is the most striking characteristic of public health law generally.

In many countries, the laws are often outmoded in ways that directly reduce their effectiveness and conformity with modern standards.

These laws often do not reflect contemporary scientific understandings of injury and disease (e.g., surveillance, prevention, and response) or legal norms for protection of individual rights. Rather, public health laws use scientific and legal standards that prevailed at the time they were enacted.

Society faces different sorts of risks today and deploys different methods of assessment and intervention.

When many of these statutes were written, public health (e.g., epidemiology and biostatistics) and the behavioral (e.g., client-centered counseling) sciences were in their infancy. Modern prevention and treatment methods did not exist. (Lawrence O Gostin, Public Health Law Reform, Am J Public Health 2001 September; 91(9): 1365–1368)

It is humbly submitted that this is true of the PCIDA.

It is timely and crucial that the country’s legal infrastructure or framework be strengthened so as to be robust to deal with existing and re-emerging infectious diseases, as well as safeguard public health against new and emerging infectious diseases.

This involves what has been termed as law capacity-building. It is worth reminding again that public health cannot be effective without laws.

But there cannot be laws if Parliament does not sit for a sufficient duration for it to make and pass the laws.

Which is why Parliament cannot just sit for one day at time when the nation needs to embark without delay on a law capacity-building to strengthen its health infrastructure.

And because the pandemic is so overwhelming in its impact that no one is, has been and will be left unaffected, a new law is increasingly necessary to provide for temporary measures to help businesses and individuals deal with the effect of the pandemic.

The new law can be modelled on the recently enacted Singapore's Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 and or the UK's Coronavirus Act 2020.

As such, Parliament has to sit for a duration sufficient for it to perform one of its constitutional functions: to make and pass law.

No, it should not be in July. It will not give the businesses and people the craved soft landing when the movement control order (MCO) is lifted — even if lifted in phases.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.