COVID-19: Commerce ministry’s PPE assessment not correct, says health ministry

Insurance cover for healthcare workers applicable only in case of death

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Sunday 29 March 2020
Photo: @wepunjabinews / Twitter

Different departments of the Union government did not seem to be on the same page amid reports from different parts of India about a shortage of personnel protective equipment (PPEs) and protective masks.

The second-most populous country of the world needed 38 million masks amid the novel coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19). But companies approached for supplies can provide only 9.1 million, international news agency Reuters reported, quoting Invest India on March 28, 2020.

About 6.2 million PPEs, or protective overalls, are needed, but only 0.8 million are available.

Invest India, a non-profit under the commerce and trade ministry, approached 730 companies, of which only 319 responded. 

The document reportedly said the requirement assessment was for four states and Union territories. The total demand, thus, can be way more.

The health ministry, however, presented a different take: “Their figures of availability might not be complete — in the sense, it might not have captured what was available with states,” according to Lav Agarwal, joint secretary with the ministry.

“The Union government’s response has been graded according to the situation. As the situation evolves, so would our need,” he said on March 29 at a press conference.

Agarwal, however, did not qualify what the correct numbers could be.

Invest India has been tasked to coordinate between the states and the Centre to ensure purchase and supply of masks, PPEs, ventilators and anything else needed to combat the pandemic.

Down To Earth has sought Invest India’s response to Agarwal’s observation.

The health ministry has been denying giving out numbers on the availability and requirement of PPEs.

“It is a number that keeps progressing, so what is the point in sharing with you?” Agarwal has said.

Officials, at the March 29 presser however, said some 10 manufacturers have been identified to start producing masks. The ministry has also asked the external affairs ministry to import as much as it can. 

HLL Lifecare Ltd, a central government enterprise, called a global tender to procure PPEs, goggles, N95 masks, nitrile gloves, face shield, triple layer survival mask and infrared thermometer on March 24. Bids will open on April 15.

Agarwal has maintained the buying at the last hour was ‘graded’. But not everyone agrees.

“This government’s delay in procurement has constrained our response to COVID-19 and put the health workforce at risk,” alleged Malini Aisola of All India Drug Action Network, a civil society group.

The 21-day lockdown will affect Invest India initiatives, she said and pointed out that HLL has sought price quotations outside its tender.

“It may take some time before even minimum stocks are supplied, which leaves the creation of buffer stocks impossible; let alone addressing the immediate shortage of protective equipment,” she said and asked:

“Why has the government activated these agencies now when India had two months to prepare?”

No trial for anti-malarial drugs

Indian Council of Medical Research has allowed the use of anti-malarial drug hydroxy-chloroquine for prevention of infection in healthcare workers. ICMR’s epidemiology unit head R Gangakhedkar clarified that no trial has been conducted so for on the efficacy of the drug in the prevention of the case. “However, demonstration studies have been going on,” he said.

A dosage of 400 milligram twice a day on Day 1, followed by 400 mg a week for seven weeks has been recommended. 

The government also clarified that ‘accident’ referred to in the notification announcing Rs 50 lakh insurance for a healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients, meant death and not any other eventuality. 

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