By early May, the tide of the coronavirus pandemic had long overwhelmed a woefully underprepared Maharashtra. On 9 May, Maharashtra recorded 20,228 COVID-19 cases, with 12,864 in Mumbai alone. Even as the state’s healthcare system struggled to accommodate the rising number of the infected, at least two government hospitals and eight private hospitals in the city saw outbreaks of the novel coronavirus among its healthcare workers, due to which some had to be sealed. This brought the desperate need to provide safety gear for front line medical staff into public view. But as the state government failed to address these concerns, doctors and other healthcare workers in hospitals of Aurangabad and Mumbai staged protests against the absence of sufficient personal protective equipment and the substandard quality of the kits supplied.
The catastrophic shortage in PPE had been weeks in the making. The manufacturing has been slowed by vague guidelines issued by the central government and the absence of standardisation in their make, despite the excessively complicated requirements listed by multiple authorities. The state government saw its wing clipped by the central government overriding its decisions and its lack of willingness to recognise the immediacy required in the state hardest hit by the pandemic. I spoke to several PPE manufacturers, who discussed the gridlock of confusion in the government’s requirements and lack of clear estimations of the number and quality of PPE required.
Rajesh Tope, the health minister of Maharashtra, had repeatedly expressed the need for the supply of PPE kits from the central government, since early April, when the state was still in the early stages of the contagion. On 7 April, in a public statement, the state government demanded 3.25 lakh PPE kits and nine lakh N95 masks from the central government. Ten days later, a frustrated Tope told the press, “We are getting supplies of medical essentials from the centre but it is not enough. For instance, we made a demand for 3.5 lakh PPE but received only 30,000.” Meanwhile, the state government itself has not been entirely transparent about its PPE requirements. On 5 April, Tope told the Indian Express that the state had “no dearth of equipment.” But in a video message circulated on 16 April, he said there was a shortfall of equipment in the state because it was not being delivered by the central government.