By Harjiv Singh,
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, the Indian government, and the rest of the world, responded swiftly with a nationwide lockdown. Yet, infections continued to escalate alarmingly throughout 2020. By September, India was recording up to 95,000 active cases a day. But by mid-February 2021, this had reduced to around 10,000. The steady decline provided some relief. Some even went so far as to suggest India had managed to avoid a second wave altogether. The arrival of the much-awaited vaccine gave further impetus to such optimism.
But today, there is little doubt India is experiencing the much-dreaded second wave. This coincides with the emergence of several new strains of the coronavirus, including a double-mutant strain, the possible threat of which are currently under investigation. Experts warn that the second wave, which is expected to peak this summer, could be more intense than the first. Fortunately, we are more prepared to deal with it than we were a year ago.
Testing rates have improved significantly since last year. From 30 January to 13 March 2020, India had tested 5,900 individuals. At the time, testing was confined to 65 government-run centres. It was also limited to individuals with travel history to affected countries or those who had contact with confirmed cases and those showing symptoms.
Today, up to over 11,00,000 tests are conducted each day. We also have over 1,200 government labs and more than 1,100 private labs dedicated to COVID-19 testing. However, a decrease in testing may have contributed to the recent rise in infections. In October 2020, India was conducting 11,20,000 tests a day. This was down to 7,20,000 in February 2021. Increased testing will help us plan adequate precautions at an early stage.
Bridging the gap in PPE supply
Countries that have successfully fought off the pandemic have adopted a multi-pronged strategy. This includes not just testing and vaccines but also ensuring regular supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
The shortage of PPE is one of the most crucial challenges the world faces today. In March 2020, the World Health Organisation estimated the global healthcare industry would need 89 million masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million goggles. PPE manufacturing would have to be boosted by 40 percent to meet this target. But India rose to the challenge well. At the time of this announcement, there were no indigenous PPE manufacturers in the country. In just two months, India became the world’s second-largest producer of PPE.
However, local hospitals, nursing homes and clinics continue to battle severe shortage of PPE. Healthcare workers are often forced to reuse gear, threatening their safety. Vaccines do not eliminate the risk of getting infected. Therefore, access to quality N95 masks and other protective gear will continue to be crucial as we fight the pandemic. Efforts must be undertaken to bridge the gap between demand and supply. E-commerce platforms can help achieve this by making it easier for buyers to access multiple verified manufacturers and suppliers and ensure their PPE meets the required health and safety standards.
Local PPE manufacturers have a bright opportunity to continue ramping up their production capabilities. Currently, 600 certified companies in India are producing close to 5,00,000 PPE suits daily.
The first wave demonstrated India’s ability to respond quickly to crisis. But we must adapt to the evolving situation. The Union Budget has already set the wheels in motion to boost production and research in medicine. We must maintain this momentum by ensuring adequate testing and streamlining the fragmented PPE market to ensure easy access to protective gear. Only then can we increase safety and prepare India for what lies ahead.
(The author is a Board Member of Global PPEMart. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)