India is currently facing a crisis in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) for those on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus, especially the healthcare professionals. And even as the dearth of PPE—which includes masks, gloves, coveralls and so on—has rung nationwide alarm bells over the possibility of doctors getting infected while treating COVID-19 patients, some health professionals are being forced to resort to some last-minute hacks. The result is raincoats and motorbike helmets doubling up as protective gear.
While the positive coronavirus cases have crossed 1,300 people in India, doctors are under constant risks of exposure and infection. In fact, in Mumbai, at least three doctors have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while one doctor has died of it. All the cases are suspected to have come in contact with patients with the novel coronavirus. Many medical professionals have spoken out about India’s lack of preparedness in tackling the pandemic, but some doctors have been at the receiving end of online hate and accused of being anti-government for pointing out PPE shortages in the country.
In Uttar Pradesh, around 4,700 ambulance drivers went on a strike on March 30 for not getting proper safety gear and health insurance. “We won’t risk our lives unless our demand is met,” Hanuman Pandey, president of the Ambulance Workers Association, told Reuters. In Kolkata, junior doctors at the Beliaghata Infectious Disease Hospital were reportedly given plastic raincoats to examine patients. In Haryana, Dr Sandeep Garg of ESI Hospital told Reuters that he has been using his motorbike helmet to protect himself. “It has a visor in front so it covers my face, adding another layer over the surgical mask,” Garg told the media agency.
At the moment, the central government is reportedly ramping up domestic manufacturing of PPEs and medical equipment, including ventilators, to cover the massive shortage of these essentials for health workers. The country is also currently thinking of importing PPEs and looking to China, Singapore and Korea to meet its requirements. At the moment, there are 3,34,000 PPEs available in hospitals, out of which 60,000 have been procured by the government and 10,00 arranged by the Indian Red Cross Society from China.
However, a Reuters report states that the country desperately needs around 38 million masks and 6.2 million units of PPEs to confront COVID-19, a number that appears to be too huge to be met considering the current scenario. In fact, in a government meeting on March 18, Al Jazeera found that the health ministry has admitted that “there is a shortage of material and the rate of supply is not meeting the rising demand.” Many government hospitals have been told that it will take a “minimum of 25-30 days” for PPEs to be delivered because of the short supply of raw materials required to manufacture PPEs, along with the transport restrictions because of the lockdown.
There have also been reports of the terrible quantity as well as the quality of some PPEs, as found by the Indian Pilots’ Guild (a union of pilots from state-owned Air India). On recent rescue flights to bring back Indians stuck overseas during the COVID-19 outbreak, some pilots said that the shoe covers “failed in minutes”, while the gloves only lasted a few hours, and the hazmat suites were “ill-fitting” and “not enough”. The PPEs, in a nutshell, were “flimsy that tear”.
As health professionals put their lives at risk for the country, their fears are palpable. In an interview to VICE earlier this week, New Delhi-based doctor Rakshit Pratad Singh had admitted that under the current circumstances, he is one of the many doctors in the country who is “suffering”. “I have been pleading with my supervisors to give us PPE,” he said. “I face the threat of infection every day.”
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