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GIST OF RAJYA SABHA TV: COVID-19 & Social Distancing

Published: 4th Apr, 2020

Introduction: COVID-19 & Social Distancing

With cases of the novel coronavirus in India increasing by the day, the Centre and state governments are doubling down on measures to curb the spread of the flu-like disease. Worldwide, the disease has claimed over 6500 lives and has infected at least one lakh people. With the World Health Organisation characterising the spread of the COVID-19 as a'pandemic', one of the measures being recommended by health and governance authorities across the world is 'social distancing', which is to "reduce the frequency of large gatherings" and limiting the scope of in-person interactions. Social distancing is a method prescribed to check the spread of the COVID-19 so that the healthcare system is equipped to treat existing patients. Around the world, including in several Indian cities, governments have recommended that companies should allow employees to work from home, and schools and universities have been shut for a period of a few weeks. On this edition of The Big Picture we will discuss how to be safe from Coronavirus.

Excerpts from the debate:

What is Coronavirus?

  • Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus.
  • ‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, ‘D’ for disease, and 19 refers to 2019, the year in which it was first discovered. 
  • Coronaviruses, named for their crownlike shape, are a large family of viruses that are common in many species of animals. 
  • In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
  • The most recently discovered coronavirus causes coronavirus disease COVID-19.
  • This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
  • Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. 

What are the symptoms?

  • The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea.
  • These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell.
  • Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment.
  • Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.

How to protect from the virus?

  • Stay home as much as possible, especially if one is feeling sick and even if he is not feeling sick as evidence suggests people can be contagious even if they don’t have symptoms.
  • Wash hands, wipe down surfaces with disinfectant, and cover mouth while coughing.
  • If one does not stay home and away from others, he could pass it on to someone older or with a chronic health condition, who is more likely to have a severe case of the disease.
  • One of the best ways to slow the spread of an outbreak is by staying away from other people, which is also called “social distancing.”
  • That gives a virus less opportunity to jump from person to person. It’s why everyone is being asked to stay home.
  • Those measures help blunt the impact of an outbreak by slowing the virus. If fewer people get sick at once, it’s easier for healthcare providers to give everyone good care.

What is Social Distancing?

  • Aside from being good news for introverts, social distancing is a public health tactic that helps communities slow down the transmission and spread of contagious illnesses like the coronavirus.
  • Social distancing is staying away from mass gatherings and keeping a distanceof 6 feet or 2 meters – about one body length – away from other people.
  • Research has shown that in urban areas and regions where a disease is spreading, taking measures like working from home, shutting down schools, and canceling large events can significantly reduce the rate of new infections.
  • It’s a good idea to check in with your local government and public health authority to find out what guidance is in place in your community

What does it mean to quarantine versus isolate?

  • Isolation and quarantine are effective ways to help prevent the spread of disease.
  • Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.
  • Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

How social distancing will help?

  • Weeks into the battle against Covid-19, experts say the best way to achieve this is through social distancing. If crises come with their own vocabularies, the most used word in the Covid-19 pandemic would probably be social distancing, a term that’s seen as a 100-fold rise in Google searches.
  • This involves not mixing with people — for work or play — not going out of our houses except for essentials and throwing life as we knew it out of the window so that hospitals are not inundated with coronavirus cases.

What steps are taken by the Indian Government?

  • Complete lockdown: The country went into complete lockdown to contain the virus and stop the communal spread.
  • Suspending visas: Taking rapid actions to limit travel by suspending visas and quarantining all incoming travellers has helped. All international passengers entering India undergo Universal Health Screening.
  • Aarogya Setu App : The Government lauched the Aarogya Setu app to help track the coronavirus infection by using the smartphone's GPS system and Bluetooth.
  • Scitech Airon: JClean Weather Technologies has developed a new technology ‘Scitech Airon’under the Nidhi Prayas program to disinfect closed spaces and rooms.The technology reduces the viral load of a closed space by 99.7 percent within an hour, depending on the room size.
  • The Invest India Business Immunity Platform: Invest India has launched The Invest India Business Immunity Platform. It is a dynamic and constantly updating platform. It keeps a regular track on developments with respect to the virus.

Suggestive measures:

  • The government needs to monitor leading indicators of how and where the pandemic is evolving and conduct scenario planning using both epidemiological and economic inputs. 
  • Efforts are underway to find a vaccine, but even the most optimistic timelinessuggest several months of scientific development before human clinical trials can begin. With no vaccine or treatment, the most effective way to stop the virus’s spread is to limit transmission by identifying infected individuals as quickly as possible and isolating them for treatment before they can infect others.
  • Another measureis the development of rapid, “point-of-care” diagnostic tests that do not require specialized equipment or technicians and can provide results within minutes. Though such tests do not yet exist, they could be developed and manufactured for use within months as opposed to the year or more it would likely take to develop and test vaccines for safety.
  • Though it is already clear that the current strategy of shutting down large parts of society is not sustainable in the long-term. The social and economic damage would be catastrophic. What countries need is an "exit strategy" - a way of lifting the restrictions and getting back to normal.


Coronavirus is not new to us, but COVID-19 is. It is the third new human coronavirus of the century. And its characteristics are not in line with this family of virus. Coronaviruses were supposed to have evolved in humans just to widen their spread, thus, not to kill but just to sicken us. But that is not happening. With more than 50,000 deaths, the fear of fatality leaping seems real now. The world is now unable to contain the spread and hopes that it becomes a general community infection, like any other cold and flu. It is argued that in such a scenario the community would develop immunity and thus developing the capacity to fight. But, it also means that the fatality from COVID-19 would be in thousands till we reach this level of infection.


The Supreme Court passed directions for all courts across the country to extensively use video-conferencing for judicial proceedings saying congregation of lawyers and litigants must be suspended to maintain social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. The top court, which has restricted its functioning and is conducting hearing through video conferencing since March 25, exercised its plenary power to direct all high courts to frame a mechanism for use of technology during the pandemic. A bench headed by the Chief Justice stressed that "technology is here to stay". On this edition of The Big Picture we analyse the concept of virtual courts and the way ahead.

Excerpts from the debate:

What are virtual courts?

  • A virtual court is a conceptual idea of a judicial forum that has no physical presence but still provides the same justice services that are available in courtrooms.
  • Virtual courts do not exist in physical form nor do they enjoin upon the defendants and petitioners to be physically present at their premises. This is a technology-based system where the internet is heavily relied upon for its smooth functioning.
  • Access to virtual courts would, however, be limited to online access, videoconferencing and teleconferencing.
  • Videoconference technology allows witnesses to testify at trial without being physically present in the courtroom.
  • In contrast to a traditional, in-person witness, the videoconference witness is not physically present in the courtroom, but ‘virtually present’ through the use of technology.
  • This enables the witness and those in the courtroom to interact with each other.

 What is the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) for courtrooms? 

  • With nearly 3 crore cases pending, delays in courts remain a grave concern. Technology can, indeed, be a major catalyst in facilitating reduction of backlog in courts.
  • The judiciary could explore the assimilation of technology that is disruptive and seamless to build upon its proactive effort to integrate IT and communication-led technologies, including through the e-courts project.
  • Tools derived from AI will help expedite case-flow management, unclog the processes that are slowing justice down, and in many cases, ease administrative aspects.
  • The use of AI in Indian courts does not envision replacing the wisdom, experience and objectivity of judges in determining verdicts.
  • In the conceivable future, there is absolutely no question of replacing human reasoning, logic and intelligence of the judiciary with automations.
  • But there are many usages of technology that can be adopted and integrated immediately. This could free up the judiciary to solve complex matters that require its full attention and expertise.
  • Significant progress has already been made. There is now standardisation of data collection.
  • AI would enable real-time governance of courts based on simple metrics like frequency of case disposal per judge, or categorisation of subject matter with respect to judges.
  • The CJI and chief justices of high courts can have a live dashboard constantly updating them on the performance of lower courts based on colour-coded markers for various key performance indicators (KPIs). This would bring a great deal of accountability and trust in the system.
  • AI systems in the US and Canada have been implemented to assist judges with matters that include bail applications and parole matters. In the US, algorithms reportedly help recommend criminal sentences in certain states. Chinese courts are believed to have established dedicated public platforms to facilitate the availability of information to litigants through IT-based options.

 Can a litigant raise a challenge based upon the doctrine of coram non judice ?

The concept of virtual court can raise an issue of legality of a potential challenge to the proceedings on the ground that the adjudication happened neither in a courtroom nor even a place declared to be a Court. Can a litigant raise a challenge based upon the doctrine of coram non judice on the ground that neither the adjudication took place in the court room/court precincts declared as such nor the Judges and/or the lawyers even attended the Courtroom?

  • Though the Civil Procedure Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Rules framed for the High Courts and the Supreme Court provide for the “seat” of the court, it does not provide for the “venue” (to loosely borrow the expressions used in arbitration law).
  • Though the issue appears to be a mere twattle, the ingenuity of a legal mind and the dauntless adventurous nature of some compulsive litigants can never be underestimated.

What are the pros of this concept?

  • Cost effective: Through virtual courts, video and audio enabled hearings is beneficial as it saves significant court costs in terms of building, staff, infrastructure, security, transportation costs for all parties to the court proceedings, especially transfer of prisoners from jails.
  • Saving manpower: Virtual courts will cut much police work and spare a large number of them for other duties. On an average, one in every five policemen is generally out on duty for court-related matters—serving of summons.
  • Transparency & accountability: Virtual courts can bring transparency and accountability in the judicial system as they can bring a lot more judicial reforms in India while helping in dealing with the long pending cases.
  • Boosting India’s legal framework: E-courts will prove to be a major step in the evolution of India's legal framework and will play a major role in boosting the confidence of domestic and foreign businesses as they explore investments in India.

What are the major challenges?

  • Authenticity issues: The use of video and audio enabled hearings have also faced significant legal and practical problems including admissibility and authenticity of the evidence received through the video and/or audio transmissions, the identity of the witness and/or individuals subject of the hearings, the confidentiality of the hearings.
  • Connectivity issues: The practical issues have been wide ranging; they include poor quality of internet connection, poor and outdated the audio and video equipment, power cuts, inability to establish connection at the agreed time, inability for multi-party to partake especially involving interpreters and vulnerable witnesses.
    • So, it is crucial to have good infrastructure for audio-video enabled hearings to be effective and successful. This would involve significant investment in court and IT infrastructure.
  • Difficult in confidential discussions: Defendants in virtual court hearings find it difficult to hold confidential discussions with their lawyers, become disconnected from remote proceedings and may be disadvantaged during sentencing.

 What needs to be done?

Access to justice is fundamental to India’s democratic framework and must not be ignored even in these dire circumstances. One way to retain access for most litigants as quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing are being implemented to avoid contracting the deadly virus, is by using technology. Some jurisdictions abroad have the facility to operate online courts and even telephone hearings for non-substantive issues. 

  • Adopting judicial platform: The importance of allowing technology within the judicial process is already recognised in studies conducted by Indian legal analysts. For instance, DAKSH’s white paper serieson a next-generational justice platform moots the idea of re-calibrating the Indian judicial system through a natively digital platform.
  • E-filing of cases: Also, filings related to a case, and non-essential hearings — which take up a substantial amount of time — can be moved online.
    • E-filing and video conferencing should be available to litigants at all levels.
    • In matters of bail hearings and habeas corpus petitions, where individual liberty is at stake, it is imperative to allow for video conferencing or other suitable mechanisms to ensure their disposal.
  • While courts cannot function in the manner they do regularly in the midst of a pandemic, using technology can help to some extent. We need the judiciary to be a pro-active force that will ensure access to as many litigants as possible, even during a health crisis.
  • In a nutshell, justice-sector reforms should provide increased access to e-justice, enabling citizens to get their disputes resolved more conveniently and quickly. Litigants should engage with online proceedings that ensure, first and foremost, procedural fairness. 

Way forward:

Across the world, we are witnessing lockdown of public and private services in an attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in such extraordinary circumstances, the role of the judiciary is even more vital to the survival of democracy. In this context, the move of the Supreme Court is a welcome and extremely important step in these unprecedented times. These measures will for sure strengthen India’s justice system and enhance its capacity to meet the global crisis, including, in the first instance, the crisis growing out of encounter with the Covid-19 virus.


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