Hit by pandemic resurgence, India enforces local shutdowns

23, Apr. 2021

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By Atul Ranjan

NEW DELHI, NNA - India has been whacked by a huge second wave of coronavirus infections which saw an unprecedented surge in cases overwhelming the country’s healthcare system.

Stoked up by a "double mutant" COVID19 variant, the worsening crisis recorded the highest one-day jump with 295,041 new cases and 2,023 deaths on Wednesday as hospitals ran out of beds and patients at the mercy of dwindling oxygen supply.

India, which has the world's second-largest outbreak, reported 314,835 new cases on Thursday (April 22), pushing the country's tally to almost 16 million cases. It was the world's biggest single day rise in cases as deaths rose by 2,104 overnight to reach a total of 184,657.

As the South Asia country scrambles to tackle its deadlier second wave, some countries and regions such as the US, UK, New Zealand, China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Singapore have imposed travel bans and other restrictions on people flying from India.

Instead of a full lockdown across the country, which was enforced last year, India is now using a targeted containment strategy for high-risk areas such as the capital territory of Delhi where the pandemic is still raging.

Voicing the worsening crisis, health officials across northern and western India have appealed for help as most hospitals were under severe strain and running out of oxygen.

The country is also making efforts to ramp up the production of vaccines and other medicines, besides boosting emergency supplies of oxygen with the help of corporates.

In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said a complete lockdown should only be a last resort since states hit by the resurgence have already imposed localized shutdowns in hotspots.

He said the country is now in a much better position to fight the pandemic after gaining much knowledge and resources since last year.

Among other measures, the country is setting up new oxygen plants, diverting oxygen from industrial use, and using special trains to transport medical oxygen and oxygen cylinders across the country, said Modi.

The government is also accelerating its vaccination campaign to cover more people quickly. From May 1, everyone above the age of 18 is eligible for inoculation. It is also allowing industries to carry out vaccinations for their employees and families, while foreign vaccines will be imported if there is an urgent demand.

During video conferencing on Tuesday, Modi urged the country's vaccine producers to scale up production capacity so that all Indians could be immunized “in the shortest possible time”.

In a statement, the country’s leading vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd. (SII) said, “For the next two months, we will address the limited capacity by scaling up the vaccine production.

It added that half of its capacities will be devoted to the federal government's vaccination program, while the other half will be for state governments and private hospitals.

Serum also announced that SII’s Covishield vaccine will be made available in the retail market too in about four-to-five months.

Recently, the company blamed US export restrictions on the raw materials for making vaccines for slowing down production.

On Tuesday, the government waived the import duty on antiviral drug Remdesivir's active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and raw materials to make the drug affordable and widely available following a mad rush for it, which sent prices spiraling in the black market.

“This should increase supply and reduce cost thus providing relief to patients,” tweeted Piyush Goyal, the minister of commerce and industry on Tuesday.

Among the corporates lending a helping hand to the government is steel producer Jindal Steel & Power Ltd. On Wednesday, it said it would provide more than 500 tons of liquid oxygen from its available stocks.

Another Indian conglomerate Tata Group said it is importing 24 cryogenic containers to transport liquid oxygen to help ease the oxygen shortage in the country.

MG Motor India, a fully-owned subsidiary of China’s largest carmaker SAIC Motor Corp., said it has partnered with a local producer to boost the production of medical oxygen.

According to rating agency Crisil, the demand for medical oxygen has shot up multiple times in the second week of April when the second wave reared its ugly head with 200,000 cases compared to pre-pandemic times.

Emphasizing that saving livelihoods as well as lives are both important, Prime Minister Modi has appealed to state governments to persuade migrant workers not to flee cities placed under lockdowns as this would not only affect their own livelihood but also businesses. After all, the workers would get vaccinated too regardless of their job location, said Modi.

Industry bodies such as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) have welcomed the prime minister's exhortation, saying it provided a much needed and clear direction amid the current atmosphere of confusion and fear.

FICCI president Uday Shankar said Modi’s appeal to states to enforce lockdown only as a last resort is assuring.

Agreeing, Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of CII, said small and medium enterprises would prefer the micro-containment approach to a total state lockdown which could hit their business more drastically.

However, the county’s leading two-wheeler manufacturer, Hero MotoCorp Ltd., has decided to halt operations temporarily at all of its facilities across the country in view of the escalating spread of the pandemic, which saw daily infections soaring from 20,000 in January to 200,000 in mid-April.

"We never thought a second wave would hit us so hard," said Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, executive chairman of the healthcare firm Biocon & Biocon Biologics.

Writing in the Economic Times, he said, "Complacency led to unanticipated shortages of medicines, medical supplies and hospital beds."