Manufacturers of COVID testing kits, protective gear struggle with transportation after lockdown

25 March 2020
On 25 March, the first day of a three-week nationwide lockdown, manufacturers of medical supplies reported difficulties in transporting the material to hospitals.
ARUN SANKAR/AFP / Getty Images
On 25 March, the first day of a three-week nationwide lockdown, manufacturers of medical supplies reported difficulties in transporting the material to hospitals.
ARUN SANKAR/AFP / Getty Images

On 25 March, the first day of a three-week lockdown across India to contain the deadly COVID-19 virus, it became clear that the decision was ill-planned and poorly implemented, as manufacturers of testing kits and personal protective equipment began facing difficulties in transporting the urgent medical materials to hospitals. The previous night, after weeks of Indian health authorities denying community transmission, which led to the country recording the lowest tests per million across the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had directed the populace of 1.3 billion to stay inside their homes during a televised address. But the centre’s failure to foresee predictable consequences of the lockdown has put several patients in danger by disturbing the continuous supply of these materials to hospitals.

The ill-thought out move caught the nation off-guard, as the government had consistently underplayed the seriousness of the pandemic in the weeks leading to the lockdown. While citizens scrambled for supplies, the medical-device industry, which is expected to be working at a war-footing to supply health workers with testing kits and personal protective equipment, found itself with employees unable to travel to work, and without transportation to move the material to hospitals.

Several state governments, including those in Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra, had declared a lockdown in their respective states that began two days before it was imposed across the nation. The pharmaceutical industry, which bears the heavy burden of ensuring the availability of essential drugs and medical devices, was the first to feel the impact. On 23 March, after various requests from medical-device industry representatives, the department of pharmaceuticals had stepped in. That day, PD Vaghela, a secretary in the department of pharmaceuticals, under the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers, wrote to chief secretaries across the country to allow opening of manufacturing units. Vaghela noted that these manufacturers were supposed to be exempt from restrictions, as per a meeting between the cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the prime minister and the state chief secretaries on the previous day. In the letter, accessed by The Caravan, Vaghela noted that “drugs play an important role in public health care delivery system” and that they were “all the more critical in pandemic situation.” He wrote, “As it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the availability of medicines to the public, it is vital that manufacturing, import, sale and distribution of the drugs takes places without any impediment so as to ensure continuous availability of the drugs.”

The next day, Dr GSK Velu, the chairman and managing director of Trivitron Healthcare—a company selected to manufacture COVID-19 testing kits—found itself lacking employees to make testing kits. On 24 March, Velu wrote to Rajiv Nath, the founder of the Association of Indian Medical Device Industry, requesting the industry body to approach the government for special permission passes in order to move raw material, supplies, and medical devices during the lockdown. In his letter, Velu requested that “movement should be permitted through all domestic courier services and other modes of transportation by road on production of documents in favour of or issued by Trivitron HealthCare Pvt. Ltd.” He further sought “Permission to work for employees of Trivitron HealthCare Pvt. Ltd. at different plants, offices within India on production of their Identity Cards.”

Yet, instead of addressing these problems, Modi’s announcement appears to have compounded them. Nitin Mahajan, the managing director of Mitra Industries, which makes blood bags that are necessary for many critical-care procedures, especially dialysis, told me that the lockdown had made things worse. “Our workers are the spine of our company. I employ around 4,000 people and only 20 percent could get to our unit in Faridabad,” Mahajan said. “We need to assure financial, emotional, and physical safety of our employees. He explained that the “logistics of moving the goods, or getting raw material to my company” had become impossible. For instance, the raw material had to come from Mumbai. “Our suppliers have refused to take orders because they are not clear how they will move it across states,” Mahajan added.

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 Narendra Modi public health