What is India Doing to Contain the Latest COVID Pandemic Wave?
Since the ‘second wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic was recorded from mid-March, India has been left scrambling to gain control over a rapidly deteriorating situation. Hospitals in certain states are struggling, not having planned for sudden escalation in infections and demand for beds, ventilators, oxygen supply, and drugs like Remdesivir.
Now, as the daily case count has crossed multiple peaks, at above 314,000 as of April 22, India’s decision makers are faced with a battle on their hands.
Moreover, if the COVID case tally continues to mount unabated, India could be facing the reality of another national lockdown, the effects of which could derail the economic rebound witnessed since late last year.
In an effort to avoid going into another lockdown, the Indian government is taking various steps, many in real time while responding to various crises calls, to control the spread of the virus as well as address major gaps in the availability of life saving healthcare facilities.
In this article, we note some of the major steps taken.
Vaccine program expanded
Starting next month, the country’s vaccination drive will be opened up to all adults aged 18 and above. So far, Covaxin/Covishield vaccine doses have been administered to over 109 million persons and 17 million persons have been fully inoculated.
From May 1 onwards, the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala will ensure free vaccination for all persons aged 18 years and above at state vaccination centers. Some states like Assam, Maharashtra, and Jammu and Kashmir are making this free for adults aged 18-45 years.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) declared that from April 28 onwards, all Indian citizens above the age of 18 years are eligible to register for COVID vaccines on the Co-WIN platform, which will provide information regarding the nearest vaccination centers and their available vaccination slots.
The aim of this Phase-3 vaccination strategy is to ensure the vaccination of all adults in a liberalized and accelerated manner, by empowering private hospitals to procure their vaccines exclusively from the 50 percent supply that is earmarked for them and empowering all states to procure additional vaccines directly from the manufacturers.
Newer vaccines awaited
Media reports indicate that the pharma giant Pfizer will prioritize orders from the Indian government, and supply doses of its COVID-19 vaccine (developed with BioNTech) “only through government contracts” in India. This could mean that private hospitals may not have access to the Pfizer vaccine unless it is sold to them by the government. The Russian anti-COVID vaccine, Sputnik V, will be supplied in India by the end of May, with efforts being made to have it imported earlier.
Vaccine quota for states
On Tuesday, the central government announced a new vaccine allocation policy whereby half the output of the domestic vaccine production will be given to the central government and the rest will be directed for the state governments and open market. According to reporting in The Economic Times: “The latter 50% will have to be sold at a pre-declared price while the center will allocate its 50% share to states based on various criteria. The Centre’s 50% share of vaccine doses will be free to the end-user and will be used in government hospitals.” The allocation to states will be dynamic, based on threat assessment, levels of wastage reported, etc.
Implementation of curfew measures
Most Indian states have initiated night curfews from around 10 pm to 5/6 am to control the unnecessary movement of people, aside from the continued provision of essential goods and services.
New Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has called for the urgent need to restart practicing social distancing norms and wearing masks to best contain the spread of the virus. Other than healthcare workers, patients seeking medical services, and travelers with valid tickets, every other person in Delhi is expected to carry an e-pass that will justify the reason for their movement. Such persons include delivery personnel, employees of private banks, internet and cable services, grocery shop employees, staff at petroleum and gas outlets, and those persons whose vaccination slots have been scheduled during nighttime. Delhi’s restrictions/lockdown has been extended to 5am, May 3, 2021.
The state of Maharashtra has reintroduced the e-pass system for ‘extreme emergency’ inter-state and inter-district travel. “People have to apply on https://covid19.mhpolice.in/ and submit the necessary documents and mention the reason for their extreme emergency travel.” New restrictions on travel, office attendance, and number of guests allowed / scope of wedding functions in the state came into force on Thursday (April 22) night.
Industries redirected to produce oxygen for the healthcare system
In response to the government’s call to support the healthcare system, India’s largest steelmakers have ramped up the production of oxygen at their plants. The state-owned Steel Authority of India has already supplied 35,000 tons of oxygen, while Reliance Industries has begun supply to hospitals in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujrat. Private enterprises like Tata Steel, JSW Steel, ArcelorMittal, and Nippon have all committed to supplying oxygen for medical usage and increasing its production.
In Tamil Nadu, political parties have agreed to allow Vedanta’s sealed Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi to conditionally resume operation – to produce medical oxygen. This is likely to be a temporary operation and will be under close state supervision.
Facilitation of oxygen to states on a need-basis
To combat the shortage of oxygen cylinders, the central government has provided an oxygen quota for all states, starting with supplying Delhi with 378 tons to begin with, and then increasing it to 480 tons as of April 21. Keeping in mind Delhi’s particularly severe crisis of oxygen shortage, the government has prioritized its oxygen supply. It has also allotted the companies that will be responsible for supplying oxygen to each state. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday assured the States of a seamless supply of medical oxygen. She said that oxygen supply has been “very neatly mapped and new permissions have been given, particularly for the hard stressed 12 States of Delhi, Maharashtra, U.P., Chhattisgarh, M.P., Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala”.
Meanwhile, the Indian Railways has begun a new initiative – a roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) train – upon which empty cryogenic tankers shall be ferried to oxygen-surplus destinations and supplied to states requiring it.
Additionally, states like Kerala, which has a surplus of medical oxygen, has sent tankers to Goa, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka.
Other government measures – increasing production of Remdesivir
India is taking steps to ramp up availability of Remdesivir to 7.8 million vials per month from the 3.6 million vials now. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said: “Some of these measures include rapid clearances for new capacities, stopping exports, stopping the exports of APIs and formulations used in the manufacture of this life saving drug, and allowing EoUs and manufacturers located in SEZs to also sell in the domestic market.”
Extension of credit lines, government support measures
In an effort to secure public health workers who are in the high-risk category, the central government has designed and launched the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package insurance scheme to cover the families of those who have lost their lives on account of COVID-19 or COVID-19 related duty. The scheme will pay US$1.5 million, and is expected to take effect immediately.
Moreover, when speaking with the National Executive Committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Finance Minister Sitharaman stated that the hospitality, aviation, travel, tourism, and hotel industries will have access to the Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme.
ECLGS 3.0 will now cover business enterprises in hospitality, travel and tourism, leisure and sporting sectors. The period of loans granted under ECLGS 3.0 would be six years, including a moratorium period of two years.
The schemes, ECLGS 1.0, ECLGS 2.0, and ECLGS 3.0, have all been extended to June 30, 2021 or till guarantees for an amount of INR 3 trillion (approx. US$39.97 billion) are issued, according to the notification from the finance ministry.
Measures to avoid public gatherings and restrictions on businesses
Social distancing norms are also being promoted by discouraging large public gatherings. To facilitate this, regions like Delhi and Madhya Pradesh have announced that no more than 50 persons can attend weddings, while examination boards have announced the cancellation of the nationwide board exams for the students of class 10 etc. Delhi, in particular, has also ordered the shut-down of gyms and in-house dining; however, restaurants will be allowed to do home deliveries. Cinemas will function at 30 percent capacity, and it is advised that offices should not be attended by the full staff.
Maharashtra, which has also been badly affected, has introduced fresh restrictions till May 1. Among these is the directive that all government and private offices are to function at maximum 15 percent capacity. Enterprises offering essential services are exempted.
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