On Friday, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat articulated that if authorities try to emphasize a clampdown on citizens using social media as a tool to seek help for COVID-19 related problems; it will be treated as a contempt of Court.
Justice Chandrachud said, “I flag this issue at the outset. We want to make it very clear that if citizens communicate their grievances on social media and the internet then it cannot be said it is wrong information. We will treat it as a contempt of Court if such grievances are considered for action”. He added, “Let a strong message go to all the States and DGP of States. Clampdown of information is contrary to basic precepts”.
The Uttar Pradesh Government had recently announced that strict civil and criminal action will be taken against those who make false appeals over social media, seeking help for COVID-19.
Other than this, the apex court questioned the Centre on the vaccine pricing policy and disapproved of the Central Government’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement and pricing policy, and remarked that the vaccines which the States are to procure are overpriced. Justice Ravindra Bhat said, “AstraZeneca is providing vaccines at a far lower price to the US citizens then why should we be paying so much? Manufacturers are charging you Rs. 150 but Rs. 300-400 to the Sates. Why should we as a nation pay this, the price difference becomes 30-40,000 crore? Rules 19 and 20 of the Drug Price Control Order require the Centre to control the price of drugs”.
The Court then asked the Centre about the procurement of vaccines by the States, while asking why a national immunization policy cannot be adopted.
Justice DY Chandrachud asked, “Will one state get priority access over another in getting the vaccines? Centre says 50 percent will be procured by states for vaccines. How will the vaccine manufacturers ensure equity? Why not follow the National Immunization Program policy”.
Stating that their hearing should make a difference, the Bench also asked the Centre as to how much oxygen would be made available to the critical states? Talking about a doctor who was close to all of them in the Supreme Court and had practiced since 1982 was unable to get a COVID bed, the Bench asked the Central Government about what was being done for the shortage of medical staff? How were doctors being safeguarded and treated for COVID-19? The Centre was also questioned about the regulation of the high cost being charged to admit and treat COVID patients. The Centre was asked whether they had thought of invoking Section 92 of the Patents Act to grant compulsory licenses in the wake of an emergency like this.
Another pertinent question that was asked was how the Central and State Governments enable vaccine registration for illiterates or those who don’t have access to the internet. Taking note of no plans mentioned in the affidavit submitted by the Centre, it was also asked about the restrictions like a lockdown which it had imposed to break the chain of spread; or the measures it had taken to ensure the supply of oxygen and cylinders. It was also asked whether a mechanism could be developed to show real-time updates as to how much allocation was being given so that which hospital had how much oxygen can be checked.
The Bench also took note of the fact that medical professionals including doctors and nurses who play a crucial role in grappling against the pandemic often do not get acknowledged and it is time we express our gratitude to them. The Central Government was directed to examine whether those who work by risking their lives can be compensated more. Justice Ravindra Bhat remarked, “Look at how nurses are dying. They play a vital role. It is time we speak about them and express gratitude”.
On the other hand, the Central Government assured the Bench that it had been vigilant and pro-active in urging States to prepare for the second COVID-19 wave. It further added that it was undertaking ‘all out’ efforts to provide support to fill in the lacuna between oxygen demand and supplies.
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