Investigation: Crucial coronavirus gear supply clouded by allegations of government ‘malintention’

by AAREFA JOHARI

A medical staff member wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus works at an isolation ward in New Delhi on January 28. PHOTO/AFP

Indian health workers are putting their lives at risk to fight the coronavirus disease. But opaque government decision-making is delaying the supply of crucial equipment needed to shield them from infection, prompting manufacturers’ associations to allege that “malintentions” have undermined the procurement process, an investigation by Scroll.in has revealed.

Gloves, masks, eye protection, hazmat coverall suits – called personal protection equipment or PPE – are a mandatory requirement for all health workers testing or treating Covid-19 patients, as per the World Health Organisation’s latest guidelines. But India could take weeks, if not months, to make them, even as experts ask the country to prepare for “a tsunami of coronavirus cases”.

India detected its first case of the coronavirus disease on January 31. The very next day, the government moved to ban the export of personal protection equipment.

But a month and a half later, the heads of two associations of PPE manufacturers told Scroll.in that the government had not placed any substantial orders with their members. In addition, it had not publicly issued any clear standards or specifications for the design, quality and testing of Covid-19 safety gear, without which the manufacturers said they cannot begin production.

These associations are the prominent industry voice, representing nearly 150 Indian medical PPE makers, public health activists who act as watchdogs of the sector confirmed.

Last week, as coronavirus-infected cases rose sharply across India, the Ministry of Textiles called the associations for a meeting on March 18 with representatives of the health ministry. The textile ministry had been assigned the task of ensuring the availability of safety gear in India by the cabinet secretary on March 8.

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