The COVID-19 situation in India is only getting worse by the day as the number of cases keeps rising with a shortage of oxygen and medical supplies. India is currently riding the second wave of the pandemic, which has now been termed as a “national crisis.” It is during such a time that the harvest of misinformation on the internet can have serious consequences, but clamping down on citizens who communicate their grievances on social media and plead for help online is equally as offensive, if not more. This is why, this act would be treated as contempt of court, the Supreme Court said on Friday, warning authorities not to stop citizens on the pretext that they are raising false grievances on the internet.
“There should be free flow of information, we should hear voices of citizens. This is a national crisis. There should not be any presumption that the grievances raised on the internet are always false. Let a strong message be sent to all the DGPs that there should not be any kind of clampdown,” said a bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud and consisting of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat, and asked the Centre, states and all DGPs not to take any action against anyone posting a shortage of oxygen, beds or doctors as spreading the rumour.
The court made it clear in unequivocal terms that any such citizen should not face any backlash from authorities, on the same day it took cognizance on issues related to the oxygen supply, drug supply, and vaccine policy in relation to the pandemic.
This comes after the BJP led government ordered Twitter to take down several tweets concerning the recent COVID 19 crisis.
“We want to make it very clear that if citizens communicate their grievance on social media and the internet, it cannot be said it’s wrong information,” Chandrachud said. It is the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases in India, along with the inadequate healthcare infrastructure in the country and shortage of supplies, which has led many a citizen to turn to social media.
“It is of grave concern to me as a citizen or (a) judge. If citizens communicate their grievances on social media, we do not want a clampdown on information. Let us hear their voices. We will treat this as contempt if any citizen is harassed if they want a bed or oxygen. We are in (a) human crisis,” Chandrachud said, adding that even doctors and healthcare workers were not getting beds, calling the situation “grim”.
On the same day, the bench heard the suo moto case registered by the apex court on the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the country. The court suggested the conversion of hostels, churches, temples, and other places into COVID-19 care centers, and that the Centre should consider the National Immunization Programme for various vaccines and must think of providing free-of-cost vaccination to all citizens as financially backward people would not be able to pay for vaccines.
“What happens to the marginalized people and SC/ST population living in far-flung areas? Should they be left to the mercy of private vaccine manufacturers hospitals? They will not be able to pay for the vaccines”, it said. The Supreme Court also said that private vaccine manufacturers should not be allowed to decide which state should get how much quota and that it should be the duty of the Centre to procure it from them and distribute it to the states.
Taking the view that the healthcare sector in India has come to a breakpoint and could require the re-employment of retired doctors or officials to deal with the crisis, the apex court also bashed the Centre for not dealing with the situation properly and not ensuring continuous supply of oxygen to Delhi, stating that the Centre had a Constitutional obligation towards Delhi. It also asked the government not to indulge in political bickering, saying, “At this time of humanitarian crisis; each and every life needs to be saved. Please convey our message to the highest level that they have to keep politics aside and talk to the Centre.”
It is hoped that the authorities abide by the apex court’s ruling because only by coming together as a people can we overcome this crisis.