Centre rushes to prepare for ventilator shortage, repeats mistake of protective-gear crisis

26 March 2020
A patient on a ventilator photographed at the Park Hospital, in Gurgaon, in May 2019. A ventilator helps patients who are unable to breathe properly on their own, and the COVID-19 virus, which affects the respiratory system, has led to a sharp spike in the number of hospitalised patients in need of breathing assistance.
MONEY SHARMA / AFP / Getty Images
A patient on a ventilator photographed at the Park Hospital, in Gurgaon, in May 2019. A ventilator helps patients who are unable to breathe properly on their own, and the COVID-19 virus, which affects the respiratory system, has led to a sharp spike in the number of hospitalised patients in need of breathing assistance.
MONEY SHARMA / AFP / Getty Images

The end of March witnessed a flurry of activity to deal with COVID-19 crisis, indicating that the government is finally waking up from its slumber on the rapidly progressing pandemic. With severe shortages in medical equipment already, India’s doctors will face the prospect of having to ration goods and services, especially with one lifesaving medical equipment that has become more valuable than gold dust: mechanical ventilators. In the last week, the centre issued notifications to ban its export, formed a national-level committee for its procurement and held a meeting with the civil-aviation department to prepare itself for an inevitable ventilator shortage. Yet, the centre appears not to have learnt any lessons from its failure to stockpile personal protective equipment and its raw material, because it took till 24 March to prohibit the export of all respiratory apparatuses and breathing devices.

A ventilator helps patients who cannot properly breathe on their own by pumping air into their lungs through a tube inserted into their windpipes. The COVID-19 virus affects the respiratory system, which has led to a sharp spike in the number of hospitalised patients in need of breathing assistance. Both Italy and China, which faced the worst of the pandemic, have already had to deal with this, and it is likely that India will struggle with it as well. “The decisions are coming a few weeks too late, and I hope the delay does not cost us a lot,” Malini Aisola, the co-convenor of a non-profit industry watchdog called the All India Drug Action Network, told me. “There seems to be a multi-pronged concerted effort in place now, and it gives hope that it will ensure we get ventilators in time for when cases start surging.”

Despite the international patterns of exponential rise in cases and the shortage of essential medical equipment witnessed by multiple countries, the Indian government has repeatedly failed to heed the warnings and act ahead of the spread. It took the centre till 19 March to issue its first notification during the public-health crisis to prohibit the export of ventilators. The same notification also prohibited the export of raw materials for coveralls and masks, three weeks after the World Health Organisation had issued guidelines informing countries to expect a disruption in the supply of protective equipment for medical staff. Yet, it took the government five more days before it issued an order prohibiting the export of the component parts of ventilators. On 24 March, the directorate general of foreign trade prohibited the export of “all ventilators, including any artificial respiratory apparatus or oxygen therapy apparatus or any other breathing appliance/device.”

Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter who works and lives in India. Her first book, Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History, was published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.

Keywords: COVID-19 medical infrastructure
COMMENT