Coronavirus (COVID-19): Preparing for a life after the ongoing nationwide lockdown — clarity on its possible extension is still awaited from the government — the Indian industry has drawn up plans for staggered reopening of facilities. This includes a proposal being pushed to governments in manufacturing states, where unit owners are saying that they be allowed to keep a limited pool of workers available, to restart units and operate, even if the operations are under-optimal.
This is predicated on the labour, including migrants, undergoing pooled testing, which will help isolate healthy batches of workers, so they can remain available. Unit owners will give an undertaking to keep workers within premises, provide meals and boarding, and ensure they stay quarantined from society.
Under pooled testing, samples from several people are pooled or combined at a time, allowing expanded testing in large population groups given limited test kit resources. In this, swab samples from the mucous membranes of the throat or nose are combined, using specified procedures in a buffer solution, and subsequently tested using the PCR/NAT test. In case of a negative result, all included samples are termed negative and the included people cleared for work. In case of a positive pool result, individual testing is carried out in previously reserved samples. The positive sample can then be identified within 4-12 hours. Follow Coronavirus LIVE Updates
Bajaj Auto, which exports half its two-wheelers, is among the companies that are learnt to have requested the state government to enable partial operations, starting with exports so that the company does not default on its committed export obligations.
Bajaj’s Chakan factory near Pune employs around 12,500 workers who produce a million vehicles a year. The company is learnt to have pushed a proposal to restart the plant, and has communicated to the Maharashtra government that plants where employer are willing to take responsibility for screening, meals and social distancing, should be allowed to restart basic operations.
In a set of recommendations to the government for restarting the economy post-lockdown, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has proposed a progressive ramp-up of operations, as per which, sectors with difficult work-from-home conditions and those which provide mass employment could be restarted first.
In the first phase, the CII has suggested that manufacturing, e-commerce and construction be restarted, alongside facilitation of logistics and transportation. The second phase, it said, which could follow two-three weeks later, would entail restarting of all the remaining sectors.
“The ramp-up could be 50 per cent employees to start with, for about three weeks. This could be increased gradually, based on how the curves are progressing in various cities and states,” the CII noted. The trade body has also called for organisations to put employees through antibody tests to identify spreaders.
Giridhar Babu, Professor and Head Lifecourse Epidemiology, Public Health Foundation of India (PhFI), said that antibody tests are not confirmatory in nature and would only turn up results around five to seven days after the infection.
“I completely get the rationale behind why this (pooled testing for factories) has to be done, but I think only the data will be able to inform us as to whether that strategy should be adopted. It should be clearer by the end of this week,” he said.
Some experts, however, have red-flagged the strategy of pooled testing to restart factory operations, pointing out that the government and industry will have to ensure sufficient precautions, like regular pooled testing and proper isolation of workers.
“If the samples would be clear that day, that does not mean that they would necessarily be clear the next day or the day after. It will only give you a snapshot of what is happening at that time in an evolving situation,” said a research scientist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“If you are trying to slow the spread, you have to see how much of a risk you are willing to accept. If you want to be 100 per cent safe, then don’t let the workers go home, or test them all and isolate them at the factory, which means they can’t mix with anybody else after that,” the researcher said, adding “you need to know what you want to get out of the test. Don’t over-rely on pooled testing for a purpose for which it is not intended”.
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