Stakeholders in the health sector have expressed mixed reactions towards the new Public Health Amendment, 2022, raising concerns about its enforcement and the possibility of abuse.
The concerns, notwithstanding, the stakeholders have also welcomed the amendment as a progressive step in advancing public health. The repeal of the criminalisation of venereal diseases as provided in the parent act, as well as updating the law to meet prevailing practices and concerns were highly welcome.
The amendment prescribes stiffer penalties for Ugandans who contravene provisions of the law, including fines of up to Shs5m and imprisonment.
Some sticking issues that stakeholders cite as potentially problematic include the efficacy of the penalties, the mandatory access by the inspector to premises at any hour, mandatory provision of vaccination for admission of children to schools, and enforcing kempt homes among others.
Mr Peter Eceru, the advocacy programme coordinator at the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), yesterday said they raised a red flag about inspectors having unilateral access to any premises.
Clause 82 of the amendment provides that “any person with powers of entry and inspection of premises under this act and a parson authorised, in writing, by a person with powers of entry or inspection may, at any hour reasonable for the proper performance of the duty enter any land or premises…,” contravention of which attracts a fine of Shs3m.
The Constitution, on the other hand, in Article 27 provides for a right to privacy of person, home and other property.
“We indicated that that area can potentially be abused. Anyone can hold out to be medical personnel. We thought the court must give an order and someone not take a unilateral decision to come and enter into premises. That must be clearly guided on how it is going to be done,” Mr Eceru said.
While the Ministry of Health spokesperson defends the provision on grounds that the right to privacy is not absolute and can be dispensed when there is an infectious disease, human rights lawyer Eron Kiiza cites a bigger problem.
“There is too much power given to the enforcer, and determining reasonableness in his purview. We should have time beyond which someone cannot apply. The law should not arm one to unreasonably violate others’ privacy and should not be so wide that you can do anything at any time. It needs to be focused,” Mr Kiiza said.
There is also concern that huge fines will not be effective in achieving the goal of advancing public health.
“Studies have established that they (fines) do not work. In public health, the idea is about behaviour change communication so that people get to know what is dangerous. For example, explain to people why they must vaccinate or you can put restrictions,” Mr Eceru said.
Mr Hasadu Kirabira, the national chairperson of the National Private Educational Institutions Uganda (NPEIA-UG), expressed reservations that schools will turn away parents who are able to pay school fees when their children are not vaccinated.
Clause 37 provides that no child will be admitted to a daycare, pre-primary or primary school unless a vaccination card is produced.
“I do not see a school rejecting a child because of immunisation. You cannot bring laws on everything. People must understand the importance of vaccination. And that should be the role of the government to sensitise the public,” he said.
Responding to the emerging concerns, Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Health Ministry spokesperson, explained that the sector minister will soon issue guidelines to operationalise the law, which will set out enforcement mechanisms.
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