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Editorial: A shortage of almost everything
Suddenly, the country is threatened with a clutch of shortages which threaten to derail what is becoming an increasingly difficult battle to contain the coronavirus.
The shortage of vaccines, which has already been widely reported on, is just one of them. Throw in a shortage of oxygen, of hospital beds, electric crematoria, and drugs such as Remdesivir, and we have a dangerous mix of issues that already poses a grave public health crisis and threatens to become much more intense.
The challenges, given the constant surge in new infections, which appear to be led by the spread of the ‘Indian’ or ‘double variant’, are enormous. Already, there are reports of deaths in a few places because of the lack of oxygen and hospital beds. The decision to import 50,000 metric tonnes of medical oxygen and the diversion of oxygen to medical purposes from units manufacturing steel and glass items are welcome. But oxygen capacity in the country is limited and oxygen is difficult to transport to places where it is urgently required. Similarly, it is not easy to scale up hospital beds. Hospitals in New Delhi, for instance, are already overrun, and their health infrastructure is threatening to burst its seams.
Instructions to cremate COVID patients in electric crematoriums, and the need to follow strict protocols, have created another grisly shortage – of places to dispose of dead bodies. And there is already a thriving black market for Remdesivir, which is needed in cases of acute infections. Yes, there are alternative drugs that could be availed of, but some are not as effective and it is not clear whether we have enough stock of some others.
This is easily the biggest crisis that India has faced in recent times. Clearly, the country had not prepared for a second wave, leave alone one of such intensity – a failure that lies at the door of the Narendra Modi government. The only silver lining is forecasting that the peak – particularly in some badly-hit Indian cities – is not far away. While the recent drop in the number of cases in Mumbai appears to support such a view, it is important to remember that we have been wrong time and again about this fickle and unpredictable disease.
As the cases rise, the other question that will occupy government minds is the imposition of further restrictions on movement and economic activity. Maharashtra was first off the blocks but other States such as Delhi have followed suit. Tamil Nadu, which recorded over 10,000 cases a couple of days back, has slapped some restrictions, but halfway measures such as night curfews, and curtailing of all commercial activities as part of the complete lockdown on Sundays are unlikely to stem the spread. The severe economic crunch, coupled with mass migrations, that attended the last lockdown has made governments wary of going the whole hog.
The solution may have to be found by keeping an eye out for the protection of livelihoods and economic health – no easy task. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s suggestions to the Prime Minister have great merit. The most radical of them, of course, is to invoke the compulsory licensing law to get around patent issues, but it is not clear whether the Centre will risk the international repercussions that such a step will engender. But radical times demand radical solutions.
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