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Here’s how Indian private sector must play bigger role in Covid management, writes Deep Kalra

We are still grappling with the enormity of the Covid challenge, but it’s now abundantly clear it can not be addressed by the government and its machinery alone.

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The grim and soul-crushing situation we find ourselves in today is nothing short of ‘a nation at war’ and hence, it requires nothing less than a war-like action plan to deal with this historic challenge. While it is easy to lament and go into a rant as to how we got here in the first place, unfortunately, this post-mortem right now will not help us in addressing the problem at hand. India is still grappling with the enormity of this challenge, but what has become abundantly clear is that this problem can not be addressed by the government and its machinery alone.

We as a country, government and citizens alike, dropped our guard after the first wave, thinking that the Covid-19 pandemic had almost miraculously abated. However, right now is the time for India’s entire citizenry and private sector to come forward to extend all help to pull ourselves out of the macabre mess we find ourselves in. This is the time for all constituents of the country to keep differences aside, ruthlessly prioritise the nation, and come together to fight the invisible yet insidious common enemy. While we are already witnessing unprecedented solidarity, support, and kindness of strangers towards one another, as well communities helping those in distress, we need India’s private sector to step up and be a part of pandemic management like never before.

Also read: Is India back to being ‘Third World’? Irony of an aspiring superpower exposed by Covid crisis

Prescription for the pandemic

As a citizen who has felt helpless and inadequate to see my country in the throes of this horrific pandemic, I recognise the need to channel our range of emotions into action that will help us provide succour, healing, and will help us recover from this unfolding tragedy. It’s time that the private sector and private citizens with expertise immerse themselves into the task of pandemic management and nation-building. I am putting forth a prescription that we all must lend immediate attention to, if we are to restore our fight back against Covid-19.

  1. Medical personnel: Despite the superhuman efforts being put in by the medical fraternity, there is an acute shortage of medical personnel and it remains the most important capacity to be enhanced. This issue can only be addressed by the government, both at the central and state level. They need to requisition all medical colleges, public and private, to ask their final and third-year medical and nursing students to join the workforce. These students should be attached to civil and private hospitals nearest to their residence. The chief medical officers of each city are aware of the numbers on the demand and supply side, and this allocation can be done fairly quickly as we also look at ramping up vaccination. Cities like Gurgaon are taking a lead on this as the administration has already appealed to doctors, nurses, MBBS students, as well as retired government and private doctors to volunteer and offer their services. They could also be used to provide non-active duties like vaccination, video consultations, etc, while the more active medical staff can take care of the emergency cases that are inundating our hospitals.
  2. Oxygen: Most hospitals are running on reserve when it comes to oxygen supply, and this capacity needs immediate augmentation. India as a country produces ample oxygen and only a tiny fraction of the total production amount is currently used for medical purposes. The oxygen supplies continue to run perilously low across many hospitals in the national capital region, the distribution needs to be streamlined and transportation of medical oxygen needs to be ramped up on war footing. Inter-state politics are also coming in the way of oxygen supplies and this has to be censured strongly with the courts themselves looking into the matter to course-correct oxygen supply and its distribution.
  3. Covid beds: Increasing hospital bed capacity becomes the next most important area to address. While hospitals are already chock-a-bloc, large built-up spaces like banquet halls, indoor stadia, and college hostels need to be commandeered and quickly converted into quasi-hospital facilities. These should then be attached to the nearest hospitals in roughly a one-to-one ratio. The hospitals, in turn, should keep less critical patients in these newly converted facilities and use the actual hospitals for those in dire need.
  4. Vaccination: This is our only real hope to defeat the virus in the mid and long term. For that to happen we have to augment our vaccine production capacity manifold and also ensure that the vaccination drives are successful. The private sector can help accelerate an equitable vaccine rollout – be it by providing crucial funding of vaccines or leveraging capabilities like infrastructure and expertise. Currently, there is a lot of vaccination hesitancy among Indians and if a certain percentage of the population does not get vaccinated we will never be able to break the chain. The Narendra Modi government needs to make it mandatory for anyone taking a flight, train, bus, or metro to be vaccinated and could also consider linking certain benefits like subsidised rations and LPG to the same.
  5. Covid equipment: Thankfully, only a tiny fraction of all Covid-positive cases actually need hospitalisation and the majority can be treated at home. However, there is a large number of these ‘home cases’ that need oxygen support to bolster their lung capacity. Overnight, the relatively unknown oxygen concentrator has become a mandatory household appliance. All domestic supplies have been mopped up and as local manufacturers ramp up production, we can complement this effort with imports as these are freely available in many countries. Corporate India, Start-Up India, and several NGOs have moved swiftly and are already deploying significant resources towards this effort. By allowing CSR funds to be used for Covid relief, including the purchase of domestic and imported life-saving equipment like the above, the government will encourage more private funds to be funnelled into these much-needed avenues.
  6. Help from abroad: Several NRIs and multinationals are keen to send critical Covid-care supplies and medications to help India fight this war. While custom duties have been removed in most cases, our foreign offices and embassies would do well to proactively coordinate these efforts. At present, genuine Indophiles are scrambling for information as to how they can help India and getting no clear answers.
  7. Digital resources: Online marketplaces, retailers, and e-pharmacies should focus their efforts on establishing the credentials of all sellers and checking for availability at regular intervals, so as to only display genuine sellers with ample supply. This will be a great help to people in desperate need of medical supplies who are currently having to run from pillar to post or send desperate SOS on social platforms in an urgent scramble for help.

And last but not the least, it’s the common person who has a big role to play in this war-time effort. Stepping out only for absolute essentials, ensuring proper mask discipline, and extending help while arresting panic is the need of the hour.

The author is the Founder & Executive Chairman, MakeMyTrip. Views are personal.

[Edited by Fiza Ranalvi Jha]

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