Jayalalithaa’s health: Her right to privacy vs our right to know, what is more important?

With all the rumour mongering, is it appropriate for us to seek more clarity on Jayalalithaa’s health?
Jayalalithaa’s health: Her right to privacy vs our right to know, what is more important?
Jayalalithaa’s health: Her right to privacy vs our right to know, what is more important?
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Late on September 22, Tamil Nadu Chief J Jayalalithaa was admitted at Apollo Hospital in Chennai for fever and dehydration. 

Ever since, the state of Tamil Nadu has been subject to large-scale reckless rumour-mongering, enabled by social media and instant messaging. The secrecy which generally shrouds the life of Jayalalithaa has continued to mask her health condition too, creating a fertile atmosphere for dangerously false information.

Meanwhile, the CM’s political arch enemy M Karunanidhi has released a statement demanding more information about her health and asked the Tamil Nadu government for photographic evidence of Jayalalithaa in hospital to quash rumours around her health.

This is not an easy debate. No doubt, there are strong political undertones, but we also have to consider Jayalalithaa’s right to privacy regarding her health, and the public’s right to know how capable she is of working since she is a democratically elected leader.

Let’s look at the facts. Jayalalithaa was admitted to the hospital on September 22, and there have been only four official statements since. 

The first one, on September 23, was a short statement mentioning that she had fever and dehydration, and that she is stable and under observation. 

Following wild speculation around her health and treatment, the hospital and the state hurriedly called for a press meet on September 25. Flanked by doctors and bureaucrats, the COO of Apollo read out a statement to TV cameras in which he said that her fever was under control, she had resumed normal diet, she was responding well to the treatment and that all rumours were wrong.

The last statement was released late on September 29, again amidst widespread rumours about her health, stating that she will be in the hospital for a few more days.

But the rumour mongering has not stopped. Companies have on several days this week asked their employees to return home early while families have been cautious while venturing out. 

In a such a situation, is it appropriate for us to seek more clarity on Jayalalithaa’s health?

Legally speaking, Jayalalithaa or the government are not under any compulsion to divulge the details of her health. The code of conduct for ministers does not require such information to be divulged. Under RTI too, it is not mandatory for Jayalalithaa to reveal information on her health.

However, if public money is being spent on her treatment, then there is some responsibility on the government to remain transparent. Even so, from a legal standpoint, four statements from Apollo could be seen as just about enough.

But the issue isn’t just about legalities. From a democratic standpoint, citizens have the right to know if an elected leader is up to the job. The political circumstances make it even more compelling for us to know. The CM holds a tight control over the party and the government, and with Jayalalithaa still in hospital, there are bound to be questions of governance and stability, which matter to citizens. 

A similar debate is afoot in the US, with the two presidential candidates fighting it over whether private health information is a matter of public interest. In fact, the President of the United States is required to submit a complete medical report every year, which is released to the public.

So, it would be well within the rights of citizens to demand for more clarity. But then, it is also true that public discourse is capable of creating paranoia over regular medical problems, by exaggerating its actual impact on a persons’ administrative capabilities. 

The question then is, how much information should be released, especially since there are rumours galore?

This is where the state needs to step in to create specific policy. Amidst an atmosphere of reckess information, what is being sought is not Jayalalithaa’s exact blood glucose levels, but regular updates on her health. She has spoken of her medical condition in the DA case, and perhaps three updates over eight days is too less information for a nervous public. 

Following a medical episode of Israeli PM Ariel Sharon in 2005, a law was proposed entitled “Reporting on the Medical Condition of the Prime Minister.”

According to the Israeli Medical Association, “The proposed law relates to the reporting of any medical episode requiring hospitalization, as well as medical checkups, and the candidate’s health prior to being elected. Regulation of the matter will hopefully prevent a situation where partial, non-specific reports and speculative interpretations and commentary are given regarding the health of a leader. This will help ensure a fair balance of the public’s right to know with an individual’s right to privacy.”

Perhaps a policy similar to this would help us back home in India. 

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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