On December 31, 2019, China informed the world about the mysterious pneumonia sweeping through Hubei. On January 7, 2020, COVID-19 was identified. A day later, the first meeting of the joint monitoring group was held in India. In effect, that is when India’s preparation started — one of the earliest starts by any country.
The first COVID-19 case was reported on January 30. Fifty-three days later, the government announced an allocation to ramp up medical infrastructure, including ventilators.
In his address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “The central government has put in place a provision of Rs 15,000 crore for treating coronavirus patients and strengthening medical infrastructure… This will allow for quickly boosting the number of testing facilities, personal protective equipment, isolation beds, ICU beds, ventilators and other essential equipment. Simultaneously, training of medical and paramedical manpower will also be undertaken. I have requested the state governments to ensure that healthcare is the topmost priority at the moment.”
For perspective, this is a little less than a quarter of the country’s annual health budget.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba asked ventilator makers to increase production. “Four-five companies, which have capacities, have been asked to scale up production… One company assured production of 5,000 ventilators in three weeks, another offered 10,000 in next two months, a third assured 4,000 ventilators,” said a source.
While unofficial estimates put the total number of ventilators in the country at 40,000-50,000, there is no official confirmation. Besides ventilators, sources said the government has asked NITI Aayog to prepare a list of critical equipment required to treat COVID-19 patients.
NITI Aayog has discussed the issue with various stakeholders including FICCI and CII. It has identified over 20 pieces of medical equipment, and the options to increase their domestic manufacturing are being discussed.
According to government data from the National Health Profile, 2019, there are 11,54,686 registered allopathic doctors and 7,39,024 government hospital beds. For an estimated population of 135 crore, it means the health infrastructure is stretched quite thin. Another problem is that the private sector is not yet part of the management plan.
According to data collected by the Health Ministry till March 17, there are only 15,980 isolation beds and 37,326 quarantine beds available. For almost two months now, experts have pointed out that poor health infrastructure may be an impediment in the COVID-19 fight.
Dr T Jacob John, former head of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology, earlier told The Indian Express: “‘Enough’ is a slippery issue. You have to break it down to distribution and quality. I don’t think India has fair and just distribution of healthcare access. Second, I don’t think dthe existing healthcare institutions are quality assured for all secondary and tertiary care.”
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