Written by Sudhansh Pant
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented global crisis. Despite being a country of extreme diversities and home to the second largest population in the world with a very high density, India has emerged as one of the most successful countries in managing this public health emergency. Most of the public discourse about the pandemic has so far focussed on the number of cases, the fatality rate, the number of tests, positivity rates, the peaks and the plateaus and the various related trends and graphics. Of late, the narrative has shifted to vaccines and the science behind them, clinical trials and other such technical issues which have never before been written and talked about in such detail.
The country’s efforts and success in effectively managing the essential medical supplies has been exemplary, without which dealing with the pandemic would not have been possible. Ensuring adequate availability of various essential medical supplies like drugs, protective gears including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits and N-95 masks, medical oxygen, ventilators and hospital beds etc. was initially a daunting task. This was overcome by taking timely, innovative and decisive steps.
The quantum of domestic production and availability of most of the items of essential medical supplies till the month of March were negligible. To effectively meet the huge challenge posed by the pandemic, tremendous efforts and resources have been invested by the country. The “Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan” also focussed on enhancing domestic production capacities. The financial rules were suitably amended to encourage procurement from domestic companies and to fast track them.
The well-coordinated efforts of several ministries including the health and family welfare, commerce and industry, micro, small and medium enterprises, textiles, department of pharmaceuticals and others ensured that India successfully ramped up the domestic production of protective gear and ventilators, thereby eliminating the initial dependence on imports. The Group of Ministers and the Cabinet Secretary undertook dozens of reviews where quick decisions were taken and speedily implemented. Such close monitoring at the very senior levels of government resulted in a slew of measures, resulting in self-sufficiency in essential medical supplies in a very short time.
An ecosystem comprising empowered groups was put in place by the government for the management of the pandemic and its various aspects. The local industry was also fully determined to convert this calamity into an opportunity and rose to the occasion.
In the case of PPE kits, from a minuscule domestic production capacity in March, India has now become the world’s second largest manufacturer with a production capacity of more than seven lakh PPE coveralls per day, which are also exported to several countries. There are already more than 1,100 indigenous manufacturers and suppliers registered on the Government e-Marketplace (GeM) portal with dozens already certified by BIS. Nearly 170 lakh PPE kits have been distributed free of cost to the states, union territories (UTs) and central institutions. The buffer stock of PPE kits available with the central and state governments has grown from about 2 lakh in March to more than 89 lakh at present. The average price of a kit has come down substantially from nearly Rs 600 to about Rs 200 in nine months.
Similarly, till March 2020 there were only two suppliers of N-95 masks with a modest production capacity of less than 1 lakh masks per day. Presently, more than 4,000 manufacturers and suppliers of N-95 masks are already registered on the GeM Portal including 149 BIS certified ones and the domestic production capacity has risen to more than 20 lakh N-95 masks per day. These are also being exported from India in large quantities. More than four crore N-95 masks have so far been distributed free of cost to various states, UTs and central institutions. The buffer stock of N-95 masks available with the central and state governments has risen sharply from about nine lakh in March to about 146 lakh at present and the average prices have dropped from about Rs 40 to Rs 12 per mask during the same period.
The total number of installed ventilators in public health facilities in the country was about 16,000 in pre-COVID times. As experience has shown, ventilators have been one of the most critical equipment along with medical oxygen which has contributed to saving lives. There was hardly any domestic manufacturing and supply of ventilators earlier. However, the full encouragement of the government of India and allocation of Rs 2,000 crore from the PM CARES Fund for the supply of 50,000 “Made in India” ventilators resulted in Indian companies successfully taking up the challenge of manufacturing these machines.
Till date, about 36,000 new ventilators have been delivered to various states, UTs and central institutions. Availability of ventilators across the country has gone up nearly 3.5 times from about 16,000 in March to more than 50,000 at present. Such timely decisions demonstrate the farsightedness of the government. At no point of time during the pandemic over the last 10 months, the availability of ventilators in any part of the country has been a constraint. Rather, there has been a comfortable surplus availability at all times, even at the peak of infection when the number of active cases had crossed 10 lakh in September.
The central government recognised the challenges posed by the pandemic in the very initial stages and successfully ensured more than adequate availability and supplies of essential medical items across the country. Several departments and agencies at the central and state level worked tirelessly and in close coordination with each other to provide timely and adequate relief during these difficult times. The strategy has been visionary and its implementation near flawless, despite the uncertainties and pitfalls of the pandemic.
The author is currently Officer on Special Duty in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. Views expressed are personal