Health officials in Bareilly this week sparked controversy when they used hose-pipes to spray what multiple reports identified as bleach over a group of migrant workers crouching on a street.
This was reportedly done amidst fear that this mass exodus of workers from the metropolis would result in proliferation of COVID-19 cases in their respective hometowns. The group (including children), was asked to close their eyes as they squatted in the middle of a street and were doused in bleach (i.e. a mixture of sodium hypochlorite), commonly used as a laundry detergent and disinfectant.
While this move met with considerable outrage, several spoke out in favour of it as well, characterising the act as ‘acceptable in COVID season’. The justification was based purportedly on similar treatment being meted out to travellers in countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam, where people were also disinfected through sanitiser sprays.
To place this incident in appropriate context, it is important to understand how this works on two levels. First, do the measures adopted by other countries constitute a globally accepted practice?. And secondly, how does this treatment of migrant workers compare with what is meted out to other social classes within India (e.g. travellers by flight, office-goers, etc.).
How ‘universal’ is the use of disinfectants on the human body?
Some reports justify the use of this technique based on its use in other countries having adopted similar practices. It is true that there has been widespread use of disinfectants to cleanse streets, public vehicles and even airplanes. However, a handful of countries (namely, China, Indonesia and Philippines) across the globe have reported to have directly applied disinfectants on people (as opposed to places).
In China, people were asked to walk through sanitising tunnels which are clouded by a mist of disinfectant. In Vietnam, the public disinfection chambers allow people to shower themselves in order to get disinfected. Notably, even in these instances, there was no intense spraying onto human bodies using a hosepipe, as was the case in India. The only other known instance of direct spraying on people using hose-pipes was observed in the case of passengers exiting a flight (from Wuhan) at the airport in Batim, Indonesia.
Based on instances from these countries, it seems inappropriate to pass this off as a global practice. In fact, the application of disinfectants on people has been expressly discouraged in several jurisdictions. Global best practices seem to indicate opposition to such direct spraying of bleach or sodium hypochlorite solution over people. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in its Guidance to EU/EEA member states and the United Kingdom does not recommend spray sanitisation of disinfectants on people, including cleaning staff regularly facing exposure. Similarly, in the United States, the ‘Interim Recommendations for Community Facilities with Suspected/Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)’ also does not mention the need to spray disinfectants over people.
Most importantly, in the Indian Ministry of Health Guidelines on Disinfecting Public Places Including Offices Against COVID-19, spraying disinfectants on people has not been recommended. Even for office spaces where people displayed symptoms, the government directed that they be vacated first before using disinfectants (1% concentrated sodium hypochlorite). The guidelines recommend against spraying disinfectants even in potentially contaminated areas (such as a toilet bowl or surrounding surfaces) as splashes can cause further contamination.
It is clear from the above discussion that not only is there no ‘universal’ consensus on the use of this technique in fighting COVID-19, such methods are actively discouraged across the world. To extend the practice of a handful of nations as a universal norm is illogical at best, and reeks of intellectual dishonesty.
Those justifying extreme actions seem to base their arguments in particular on the steps taken by China to manage the epidemic. This is particularly disturbing, since there is little in common between the two nations – politically, socially or economically º we are simply not on comparable terms. Despite this, the constant deification of the Chinese model of disease control, whilst simultaneously blaming the Chinese for the spread of the virus, is a case study in irony.
Does spraying disinfectants externally prevent the spread or ‘cure the carrier’?
Even before we begin discussing the demeaning act of spraying disinfectants on a group of squatting people, one must first confront the question – is it a scientifically proven technique to curb the spread of the virus? The jury seems to be out on this.
Medical experts and scientists from several jurisdictions have warned against the use of these corrosive chemicals directly on humans, and indicate this can cause severe respiratory problems and skin irritations. As a 2019 study indicates, nurses who use disinfectants regularly ran a higher risk of contracting obstructive pulmonary diseases. The repeated spraying of these chemicals over large areas can cause environmental pollution, in addition to causing health hazards.
What becomes clear is that the factual enquiry – whether use of disinfectants on human beings prevents the spread of coronavirus- does not have a clear answer. However, it is beyond debate that such a technique may adversely impact health. Despite this, that some citizens had to undergo this ritual cleansing suggests that either the authorities do not care for scientific evidence – thus being guilty of ignorance, or worse, that they simply do not care about the harm, both physiological and mental – arising from their actions.
The legal dimensions of dignity in India
The preamble of our constitution assures ‘dignity of the individual’. Through a series of pronouncements, the Supreme Court has established this assurance of dignity finds a place as a part of the ‘right to life’ guaranteed under Article 21. Justice Subba Rao, in his momentous dissent in Kharak Singh’s case, noted that a life without dignity was ‘mere animal existence’. In Francis Coralie, the court read into this interpretation all concomitant rights, including the right to live with dignity, outlawing all cruel and degrading treatment. This, the court held, was not only in pursuance to the Constitutional objects of dignity, but also in accordance with our international obligations.
In Olga Tellis, in protecting the livelihood of pavement dwellers, the court further elaborated that such a life of dignity extends equally to all. The understanding of dignity by the courts extends to other fundamental freedoms as well. In Navtej Johar, a unanimous (albeit polyvocal) court approaches dignity through the lens of equality. It noted that a life with human dignity is a guarantee against arbitrary discrimination.
Most recently, in the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Puttaswamy-I, the court reiterated the inextricable link of dignity with freedom and the right to privacy. The court also recognised the inviolability of the body. Justice Chelameswar in his separate opinion recognised in particular that the right of privacy included repose, or freedom from unwarranted stimuli. Any interference from the state by any means whatsoever, including spraying of a disinfectant onto a migrant worker’s body, must satisfy the ‘triple test’ of legality, necessity and proportionality, as laid down by the court in this case.
This means that not only must there be a law specifically enabling the administration to spray sodium hypochlorite on people, such a law must be fair, just and reasonable and not arbitrary; and the means adopted must have a rational nexus with the goal, i.e. prevention of the spread of disease among the population. In this specific instance, there existed no law which directed the Uttar Pradesh administration to spray bleach on migrant workers; in fact the district magistrate in an interview admitted that the mandate was exceeded by officials who acted erroneously.
As already established, direct spraying of bleach on people is antithetical (far from being reasonably linked) to the avowed objective of protecting the health of people. Further, this move is clearly disproportionate as it has a debilitating effect on the health of the workers, and is in clear violation of their personal dignity and bodily integrity.
Under normal circumstances, it would be quite obvious that there is humiliation inherent in the act of spraying disinfectants. The use of ‘bleach’ as the chemical – the normal uses of which are to disinfect toilets, bedsheets and remove mould – on human beings, particularly using hose-pipes which spray them with great intensity, should in itself give rise to objections.
This apart, the spraying of disinfectants only at migrant workers, and not at all people travelling, reeks of privilege and prejudice. This prejudice manifests itself through the differential treatment meted out to the migrant workers as compared to those arriving through the airports. While an elaborate process for sanitising the elite was purportedly followed at most airports, in several cases even fundamental checks such as thermal screening did not take place. None of those travelling by air were exposed to a jet-spray of harmful chemicals while squatting on roads in the same manner.
Some may believe that the times we live in require us to take drastic measures, and that we must learn to suffer these extreme actions for the greater good. This idea of a crude utilitarianism glosses over the identities of those that end up suffering these indignities disproportionately. The question therefore remains – does living in society demand the sacrifice of personal dignity at the altar of larger community interests? For the many, the answer can be roughly equated to their position on the never-changing social food chain.
Our collective conscience would have revolted already had such an indignity been thrust upon one of ‘us’.
Agnidipto Tarafder is an Assistant Professor at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. Siddharth Sonkar is a Final Year Student of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.