The Supreme Court’s order that private medical labs should do free testing for coronavirus cases is unlikely to help government or society in the fight against the deadly COVID-19.
The Centre had informed a Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S. Ravindra Bhat that to increase the testing capacity, it had allowed 47 private labs to carry out the tests.
In response to a plea filed by advocate Shashank Deo Sudhi that the Centre and authorities should the testing facility without cost, the top court said, “Private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play in containing the scale of the pandemic by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis.”
There are several issues with this verdict. First, philanthropy comes and should come from the heart; it can’t be thrust upon individuals or private enterprises by executive fiats and judicial orders. This, by the way, also implies that the mandatory provisions in the company law that big corporations carry out their corporate social responsibility or CSR is morally obnoxious. Thankfully, the criminal liabilities in the event of non-compliance have been done away with.
Second, philanthropy cannot be mixed with business. The top tycoons like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Azim Premji have donated billions of dollars for the needy, but they have done it out of their own volition and out of their own earnings. However, they didn’t run their businesses like charitable organizations. As businessmen, they are as devoted to profit maximization as any other magnate. In fact, Gates is has attracted accusations of monopoly practices.
Third, the government had fixed a price cap, of Rs 4,500, on the COVID-19 test by private laboratories. It also capped the cost of confirmation tests at Rs 3,000. The caps are said to be extremely low; the profits are negligible or nil.
The guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) urged private laboratories to be lenient in charging the patients. “However, the ICMR encourages free or subsidized testing in this hour of national public health emergency,” the guidelines stated. That is how it should be: you can request people to be charitable, but cannot command them to be.
Fourth, the SC order may adversely affect the battle against the deadly coronavirus. “The whole purpose behind including private laboratories was to augment testing capacity. They have already been told to conduct tests at government-specified rates. Expecting them to do it for free will be challenging for the laboratories, especially in the current economic scenario,” Biocon chairperson and managing director Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw told a news magazine.
There is a strong possibility of private labs stopping corona testing. This will be bad, for every medical expert says that the need of the hour is more testing.
And, finally, if the government takes up the burden and pays them for testing, this will further strain the public exchequer, as the lockdown is having a ruinous effect on the economy; and this will badly impact the tax revenue. Besides, getting reimbursement from government is not a prospect private lab owners would cherish.
Therefore, the apex court’s order looks like a case of judicial overreach..