Parsa authorities’ decision to allow police to fire upon Covid-19 patients fleeing isolation is “utterly wrong”, say rights activistsAfter two infected individuals escaped from the hospital on Wednesday, the district authorities have allowed police to exercise extreme force if necessary.
Bhusan Yadav & Shuvam Dhungana
Update: Late Friday evening, responding to public outcry, the Parsa District Administration Office revoked the directive allowing security officials to fire upon Covid-19 patients who leave the hospital isolation ward. Security officials are now authorised to use necessary force as per Local Administration Act, 1971.
The Covid-19 pandemic has everyone on edge, especially as infections continue to rise across the country. But the authorities are responding with increasingly draconian measures, like the Parsa District Crisis Management Centre’s directive allowing security personnel to open fire on any infected patients who attempt to leave the isolation ward.
The decision prompted outrage on social media and criticism from human rights activists who see it as a dangerous escalation and a violation of an individual’s fundamental right to live with dignity.
A meeting chaired by Parsa Chief District Officer Bishnu Kumar Karki on Thursday evening directed security personnel to remain vigilant and open fire on anyone who attempts to leave hospital isolation.
“Security personnel are allowed to use force to prevent infected people from fleeing hospitals and isolation wards,” Lalit Kumar Basnet, assistant chief district officer, told the Post. “They even have the right to open fire if necessary.”
The decision came on the heels of an incident on Wednesday when two persons who had tested positive for Covid-19 left the isolation ward at Narayani Hospital in Birgunj. According to the hospital, the duo escaped through the bathroom. They were eventually apprehended by the Birgunj police and brought back to the hospital.
According to Superintendent Ganga Panta, chief of the Parsa District Police Office, the two individuals fled from the hospital due to a lack of knowledge about the seriousness of the disease.
“One of the two who escaped has a history of drug smuggling but the other one followed him as they were locked in a room with limited facilities,” Panta told the Post.
But in order to prevent such a situation from arising again, the Parsa police is ready to implement the shoot order if necessary, said Panta.
“When the two patients escaped, it was very difficult for our personnel to get them back to the hospital. Although we managed to bring them back without using force, it was risky work,” he said. “As an infected person can spread the virus rapidly, the shoot order will discourage people from attempting to escape in the future.”
Panta said that there is a guideline to the shoot order. Police personnel will first chase down the individual and give them a warning before any shots are fired.
Rights activists, however, are aghast at the decision to allow police to open fire on fleeing Covid-19 patients.
Bed Prasad Bhattarai, secretary at the National Human Rights Commission, called the decision completely wrong.
“Patients could be going through mental stress or trauma, leading them to leave the hospital,” Bhattarai told the Post. “Rather than focusing on possible treatment, they’ve issued a shoot order.”
A Covid-19 diagnosis can prompt stress and anxiety in patients, especially those who are unaware of the severity of the disease, its symptoms and treatment, say doctors. This can lead to irrational behaviour, including a desire to go somewhere familiar.
“The authorities should focus on the patients’ situation, knowledge about the disease, and their need to deal with the situation,” said consultant psychiatrist Dr Basudev Karki. “And it is not just patients; police personnel and even health workers may need counseling. The authorities need to also focus on mental health issues during this pandemic.”
Karki conceded that some force might have to be used to restrain people who might want to leave despite being well aware of the disease and not having any mental health issues. He, however, said that there is no reason to open fire on patients.
According to rights activists, the increasingly extreme measures that the authorities are adopting to combat the spread of Covid-19 could have the opposite of the intended effect.
“The [Parsa] decision has only created more mental anguish among patients and the directive could easily be misused, too,” said Charan Prasai, a human rights activist. “This is a very serious issue and a violation of an individual’s fundamental rights. The authorities should rather focus on improving quarantine facilities.”