The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 ("Coronavirus") outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020,1 and a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.2 Around 124 countries as of today have reported instances of the Coronavirus and, recently, multiple cases have been reported in India, too. It has, therefore, become imperative for employers to increasingly safeguard workplaces and their employees.
2. MEASURES IMPLEMENTED BY THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
2.1 Travel Advisories and Visa Restrictions
On March 6, 2020,3 the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Government of India (the "MoHFW") issued the 'Consolidated Travel Advisory for COVID-19' which consolidated all earlier relevant travel advisories. It advises Indian citizens to refrain from travelling to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan, and to avoid non-essential travel to other Coronavirus-affected countries. The consolidated travel advisory also addresses visa restrictions for Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan issued on or before March 3, 2020. Regular (sticker) visas and e-visas granted to Chinese nationals will remain suspended. Additionally, regular (sticker) visas and e-visas granted to all foreign nationals who have travelled to China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan on or after February 1, 2020, and who have not yet entered India, will stand suspended with immediate effect. The advisory further obligates all international passengers entering India to furnish duly filled self-declaration forms to health and immigration officials, and undergo 'universal health screenings' at all points of entry to the country. It also clarifies that if a traveler feels displays symptoms such as cough, fever or difficulty in breathing within 28 days after returning from any Coronavirus-affected area, he/she should immediately call the helpline number set up by the Government of India (+91-11-23978046), disclose his/her travel history, and undergo appropriate medical examinations.
In addition to the 'Consolidated Travel Advisory', the MoHFW issued the 'Additional Travel Advisory (I) for COVID-19 on Home Isolation'4 and the 'Additional Travel Advisory (II) for COVID-19'5 on March 10, 2020 for Indians intending to travel overseas. The first advisory specifically requires all passengers with recent travel history to China, Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany to undergo self-imposed quarantine for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival. Given this, employers are obligated to facilitate work-from-home facilities for such employees.
After a meeting on March 12, 2020 of the high-level Group of Ministers, which was constituted to monitor the Coronavirus outbreak in India, a revised travel advisory6 was released. This advisory has suspended all existing visas except diplomatic, official, United Nations, international organizations, employment and project visas till April 15, 2020. It has also suspended visa-free travel facilities granted to 'overseas citizens of India' till April 15, 2020. This effectively bars international travelers from entering India almost completely, for over a month.
This information was reiterated on March 11, 2020 by the Bureau of Immigration of the Ministry of Home Affairs.7
2.2 Advisory on mass gatherings
On March 5, 2020,8 the MoHFW issued an Office Memorandum stating that experts across the world have recommended that mass gatherings be reduced.
2.3 Awareness Materials published by the Government of India
2.4 Order to invoke powers under the Disaster Management Act, 2005
On March 11, 2020, the Disaster Management Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order11 delegating some of its powers to the Secretary of the MoHFW to enhance the preparedness towards and the containment of the Coronavirus.
3. MEASURES IMPLEMENTED BY THE STATE OF KARNATAKA
On March 5, 2020, the Department of Labour of the Government of Karnataka issued a circular ("Karnataka Circular")12 that stipulated that employees suffering from the Coronavirus who are covered under the Employee State Insurance Act, 1948 ("ESI") should immediately visit the nearest ESI hospital or clinic for evaluation and treatment. An affected employee is required to obtain a certificate from the relevant medical officer which will enable him/her to obtain paid leave of 28 days from the employer. In cases of employees who are not covered under the ESI Act, employers are required to provide such infected employees 28 days' mandatory paid sick leave. The circular also reiterates the powers of Deputy Commissioners and District Magistrates to take all necessary actions in emergency situations, including isolating infected employees.
On March 11, 2020, the Government of Karnataka, in exercise of its powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 released 'The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020'. While these regulations largely deal with the obligations of hospitals and laboratories, they also stipulate that no person, institute or organization should use any print or electronic media for spreading mis-information regarding the Coronavirus. Employers are strongly advised to make sure that their employees do not, deliberately or otherwise, engage in any conduct which may be construed as spreading mis-information about the Coronavirus. The district administrations have also been given far-reaching powers to implement various containment measures in their respective geographical areas. Among other powers, district administrations can seal geographical areas, bar the entry and exit of population, and ban vehicular movement in designated areas.
4. INDUSLAW VIEW
In the context of the travel advisories issued by the Central Government, employers may want to defer business travel of their employees as much as possible, particularly to the regions where cases of the Coronavirus have been reported. If an employee nevertheless travels, he/she would have to be quarantined for a minimum of 14 days upon their arrival in India, and the respective employer has to facilitate work-from-home for such employee during this period. Employers would do well to urge their employees to practice good hygiene at their workplace and follow safety protocols as issued by the MoHFW. Karnataka is the first state in India to have issued specific circulars and notifications post the confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in India; however, we expect other major states to issue similar directives in the near future.
Admittedly, a situation such as this is unique in contemporary memory. Employers across the globe have resorted to novel ways of ensuring that their operations are, to the maximum reasonable extent, seamless and uninterrupted. While work-from-home options seem to be the most popular method adopted by employers, it is fair to say that human resource departments of all corporations have been dealt an unenviable task of balancing precautionary measures with business and operational objectives.