Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday chaired a high-level meeting to review the Covid-19 situation in the country, directing government officials to make a distribution plan for oxygen supply to rural areas and scale up health infrastructure to manage the disease burden in those regions.
The Prime Minister asked officials to focus on testing, including door-to-door testing and assist health care workers in rural areas, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement. He also stressed that local containment efforts were the "need of the hour", especially in states where the test-positivity rate – an indication of the spread of the virus within a population – is high.
"PM asked for augmentation of healthcare resources in rural areas to focus on door-to-door testing and surveillance. He also spoke about empowering ASHA & Anganwadi workers with all necessary tools," the statement said.
PM Modi's directions are significant, given that the deadly second wave of infections in the country appears to have affected rural hinterland faster than it did during the first outbreak last year.
As reported by HT on May 8, during the first wave, urban areas contributed a majority of new infections in India every month for five months from March 2020 to July 2020, before rural areas started contributing more new cases. In the second wave, which began in February, this took just two months as rural areas began contributing more cases April onwards.
Experts say the impact of the outbreak could be even deadlier in rural areas, where health care infrastructure is traditionally weaker and fewer medical facilities are available. About 73% of the country's population also resides in rural districts.
"The Prime Minister directed that a distribution plan for ensuring oxygen supply in rural areas should be worked out, including provision of Oxygen Concentrators," the statement said.
The PM's meeting was also held just weeks after the national capital plunged into a health care crisis over the supply of oxygen, which is crucial in the treatment of Covid-19 patients. Starting April 22 until the first week of May, hospitals across New Delhi repeatedly made distress calls over dwindling stocks of oxygen, and dozens of patients died as some facilities waited for supplies to be replenished.
The situation in the Capital has now eased but other states are facing a similar issue. At least 75 Covid-19 patients died at a premier hospital in Goa after fluctuation in the supply of medical oxygen this week.
At the meeting that was attended by Niti Aayog member VK Paul, cabinet secretary Rajeev Gauba among other officials, PM Modi also instructed officials to ramp up testing with both RT-PCR and rapid tests, specifically focusing on Covid-19 hot spots. According to the statement, the PM was informed that testing figures have gone up from 5 million per week in early March to around 13 million/week presently.
Separately, the statement said the Prime Minister "took serious note of some reports about ventilators lying unutilised" and ordered an immediate audit of installation and operation of the life-saving machines that were provided by the central government to states in recent weeks.
The PM's response likely refers to the spat between the Centre and the Congress-led Punjab government after the Union health ministry dismissed reports suggesting that ventilators given to a hospital in Punjab's Faridkot were lying unused because of technical glitches. The Union health ministry said earlier this month that the reports of faulty ventilators were "unfounded".
Training for properly operating ventilators should be provided to health care workers if necessary, PM Modi added.
The Prime Minister also appeared to address concerns regarding allegations of states undercounting cases and deaths linked to the viral illness. He "encouraged" governments to report Covid-19 numbers "transparently without any pressure of high numbers showing adversely on their efforts".
The move came a day after the Opposition Congress in Gujarat demanded an inquiry into a local media report that said around 61,000 deaths had not been counted in the state's official toll of Covid-19 victims. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government has denied the allegations.
Officials on Saturday gave a detailed presentation on state- and district-level situation of Covid-19 testing, oxygen availability and health care infrastructure. They further briefed the Prime Minister about the slowdown of the second wave of infections and said that daily new cases across the country had reduced from over 400,000 a day.
On average, India has been adding XX new cases per day this week, as compared to XXX cases/day last week.
The PMO said the road map for future vaccine availability was also discussed, with Modi directing officials to work closely with states to fasten the pace of inoculations.
In recent days, vaccination centres across several states such as Maharashtra and Delhi said they halted inoculations due to a scarcity of vaccine doses. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also appealed to the Centre this week not to leave it only to the state governments to procure doses from international vaccine makers for the 18-44 age group.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Saturday attacked the central government over its Covid-19 strategy and said that its "disastrous vaccine strategy" will ensure a devastating third wave. "It can't be repeated enough-India needs a proper vaccine strategy!" he wrote.