People who neglect to wear masks in public and do not follow physical distancing norms violate the fundamental rights of others amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court said on Thursday.
“Things are wanting. People are violating guidelines on COVID with impunity all over the country,” Justice Ashok Bhushan, heading a three-judge Bench, said.
Justice M.R. Shah, on the Bench, drew attention to how vegetable markets overflowed with people showing scant regard for physical distancing.
“There are so many vegetable markets and people are supposed to keep a distance of six feet from each other. Nobody is following this in the entire country. These are places where the super-spread started,” Justice Shah remarked.
Though expressing deep anxiety about the lack of implementation of COVID-19 norms across the country, the Bench, however, stayed a Gujarat High Court order of December 2, which went to the “well-intentioned but disproportionate and harsh” extent of directing people who do not wear masks to be sent for community service at COVID-19 care centres in the State.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the Gujarat High Court’s order may lead to a cure worse than the disease itself.
“Harm of not wearing a mask is less than this,” Mr. Mehta said.
Justices M.R. Shah and R. Subhash Reddy, however, focussed on the intention behind the High Court order, saying the poor implementation and lack of will on the part of the authorities to enforce COVID-19 norms was stark. Weddings and rallies were seeing hundreds of people gathering, Justice Shah remarked. The court asked why the police were not taking any action against the violators.
Mr. Mehta agreed the problem had to be dealt with on a war-footing.
“Many persons are violating the fundamental rights of other persons,” Justice Shah noted.
“Social distancing and masks are the only things which stand between me and COVID now… Everybody is going around without a mask,” Mr. Mehta said.
The law officer said the Centre had issued extensive COVID-19 preventive protocols. He wondered aloud whether this show of nonchalance towards masks was another expression of an oft-seen public tendency to defy rules. “Instead of wearing a helmet, it is left hanging on the two-wheelers, only to be worn when a policeman is spotted,” he pointed out.
Justice Shah said the court was viewing the defiance of COVID-19 norms as a “national problem” and not just restricted to Gujarat. The court said a mere increase in fine alone without creating a mechanism for implementation of the norms would turn out hollow.
In Gujarat, the Bench directed the State’s Additional Home Secretary to ensure that COVID-19 guidelines were “vigorously implemented”. The court said police officers and the administration should ensure that the guidelines were “scrupulously followed”.