COVID-19 pandemic not a one-time disaster, broader approach needed, the government tells Supreme Court.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not a “one-time disaster”, like an earthquake or a flood, for which victims can be compensated with just money, the Centre has told the Supreme Court.
The virus is an ongoing pandemic which will continue to attack in waves. A “broader approach” is essential. The government was responding to petitions in the Supreme Court to pay ₹4 lakh compensation to the families of every COVID-19 victim.
“Unlike disasters of a short and finite duration, occurring and ending quickly, COVID-19 is a global pandemic which has affected all the countries in the world. The pandemic has claimed more than 3.85 lakh lives, a number which is likely to increase further… These deaths have affected families from all classes — the rich and poor, professionals and informal workers, traders and farmers…” the Ministry of Home Affairs, represented by Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, said in a 189-page affidavit.
Limiting relief to monetary pay-offs was a “narrow and pedantic approach”. There was also no precedent of giving ex gratia compensation for a disease or disaster spread out over several months or years.
“The pandemic started in the early months of January 2020 and the country is still battling the same with different intensity, different symptoms and different mutations, with no certainty regarding the end,” the government said.
Massive distribution of compensation across the country at this point would dry up precious financial resources of the Centre and the States.
“If the entire State Disaster Response Funds get consumed on ex gratia compensation for COVID-19 victims, the States may not have sufficient funds for organising COVID-19 response, for provision of various essential medical and other supplies, or to take care of other disasters like cyclones, floods, etc. Already the finances of State governments and the Central government are under severe strain due to the reduction in tax revenues and increase in health expenses on account of the pandemic,” the affidavit explained.
Besides, the MHA said granting ex-gratia compensation for one disease while denying it for those accounting for a larger share of mortality would not be fair or proper.
“It would create unfairness and invidious discrimination between persons suffering from one disease and those suffering from another,” the government justified.
The court said its “broader approach” encompasses a different set of ‘Minimum Standards of Relief’ focused on public health interventions, social protection and economic recovery for the affected communities.
“This would be a more prudent, responsible, and sustainable approach,” the Ministry argued.
It said funds to the tune of ₹1,113.21 crore was released to States /UTs towards management and containment of COVID-19 over and above the National Health Mission coverage in 2019-2020 financial year. In 2020-21, ₹8,257.89 crore was released to the States/UTs to fight the pandemic.
On the question of compensating health workers who died in the line of duty, the Centre said it had provided comprehensive personal accident cover of ₹ 50 lakh to 22.12 lakh health care workers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package. Another ₹442.4 crore was released to pay the insurance claims of health workers.