Centre stalls demands of protective-gear manufacturers; HLL retains procurement monopoly amid COVID pandemic

23 March 2020
Workers make protective masks in Mumbai, on 14 March. Manufacturers of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers have opposed the Indian government’s decision to centralise procurement through HLL Lifecare Limited, a government-owned company.
Francis Mascarenhas/ REUTERS
Workers make protective masks in Mumbai, on 14 March. Manufacturers of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers have opposed the Indian government’s decision to centralise procurement through HLL Lifecare Limited, a government-owned company.
Francis Mascarenhas/ REUTERS

Emergency procurement of personal protective equipment—or PPE—such as masks, gloves and respirators for healthcare workers, remain stalled. PPE manufacturers are opposing the Indian government’s decision to centralise procurement through HLL Lifecare Limited, a government-owned company that has been granted the monopoly over the procurement of PPE kits. Officials from the ministry of health, the ministry of textiles, and representatives of HLL met twice on 23 March to iron out problems caused by the monopoly, the delays in supply of PPE kits, as well as lockdown. Yet, there does not appear to be any resolution so far.

According to PPE manufacturers, the process of procurement laid out by the Indian government requires every PPE manufacturer to send the PPE kit to HLL, which will then assemble it and send it forward to the different state and central hospitals treating COVID patients. This unwieldy process has created a bottleneck of medical equipment that is urgently needed by India’s healthcare workers.

“They want us to supply coveralls to HLL, to be assembled and sent it back to different states,” Sanjiiiv Kumar, the chairman of the Preventive Wear Manufacturers Association of India, said. “We are getting frantic calls from doctors who need the kits now. Do you think we have the time for this process? Everything is under lockdown and we can barely move our material. We cannot supply to HLL and perpetuate the centralisation of procurement. We are not here to do business as people die.”

“There are many anomalies in the procurement process,” Malini Aisola, the co-convenor of the All India Drug Action Network, a health-sector watchdog, said. “The subsequent failure to obtain stock makes that amply clear. HLL and the coordinating government agencies have gambled with the safety of health workers. They have already jeopardised India’s COVID-19 response.” Aisola was unequivocal in stating that “HLL must be removed as the monopoly agency to supply PPE.” She added, “The health ministry must take charge in recommending minimum specifications and prices, issuing guidance to state governments which can also be utilised by private hospitals. It should also set up a central monitoring mechanism to rapidly respond to requirements, and shortages from different parts of the country.”

On 22 March, The Caravan reported that India had failed to create stockpiles of PPE required for healthcare workers despite the World Health Organisation issuing guidelines to do so as early as 27 February. Making matters worse, the government did not ban the export of raw material used to make PPE kits until 19 March, triggering massive shortages in the market, as manufacturers continued to export the material to other nations that were stockpiling.

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: COVID-19 Ministry of Health and Family Welfare public health healthcare
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