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Center kept 13000 unused ventilators during COVID-19 second wave crisis

RTI reveals 46,900 ventilators were distributed to states, while 13,000 remained unused with the Center.

During the devastating second wave of COVID-19, hundreds of lives could have been saved had the health infrastructure been in place in India. Demand for ventilator beds skyrocketed across the country, and multiple media houses reported on the lack of ICU or ventilator beds in several states.

But was there an actual shortage in the supply of ventilators? An RTI response received from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), on July 8, 2021 by Nilesh G Prabhu, a businessman, reveals that nearly 13,000 (12,973) ventilators procured by the Center were not distributed to the states.

The question is, Why were nearly 13,000 ventilators not distributed when COVID-19’s second wave was at its peak? Undoubtedly, these 13,000 ventilators could have saved so many lives had they been distributed and installed in hospitals in time.

Prabhu, in his RTI application to the Health Ministry, asked:

  • Kindly provide details of ventilators purchased by the Health Ministry or PM CARES Fund from April 2020 to June 2021.
  • Kindly provide names and details of the hospitals to which these ventilators were supplied.

In response to the first question, the Health Ministry stated that 59,873 ventilators were procured by the MoHFW by June 2020.

In response to the second question, the MoHFW – instead of sharing the names of the hospitals – shared the names of 36 states and the number of ventilators received by each state from the Center.

As per the RTI, till June 1, 2021, 46,900 ventilators were supplied by the Center to 36 states and central institutions. Though the RTI does not clarify what central institutions are, the MoHFW refers to the hospitals and medical facilities run by the Center.

Of 36 states, Gujarat got the maximum, 5600 ventilators, followed by Maharashtra with 5555 ventilators, and Uttar Pradesh with 5316 ventilators while Sikkim got the least – 10 ventilators.

Simply deducting the distributed ventilators (46,900) from the procured ventilators (59,873) gives the figure of nearly 13,000 ventilators. These were with the Center, but unused.

Why delay in procuring when order was placed in May 2020? The MoHFW has mentioned ventilators being supplied to the Center and state hospitals but whether it includes the army and the central armed police forces (CAPF) hospitals, is a question which we have asked the ministry and are yet to hear from them. But certainly, all 13,000 ventilators cannot be supplied to the army and CAPF hospitals.

Since Prabhu in its RTI asked for the data between April 2020 till June 2021, one might argue that MoHFW might have procured nearly 13,000 ventilators in June itself because of which they could not share the details of the states to which these ventilators were supplied to.

If this is the case then it leads to an even more serious question. Why was there a delay in procuring ventilators by the central government when the orders were placed in May 2020 with the manufacturers?

Govt projected demand for 75,000 ventilators till June 2020. A press release issued on May 1, 2020, by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers stated MoHFW has indicated projected demand of 75,000 ventilators till June 2020… orders for 60,884 ventilators have been placed by HLL Lifecare Limited, a PSU under the MoHFW, which is acting as the central procurement agency.

Keeping in mind that the projected demand for ventilators might increase in June 2020, the government placed an order for over 60,000 ventilators in May 2020.

Technically, the government should have procured over 60,000 ventilators by June 2020, based on the projected demand, but that was not the case.

In 8 months, government distributed only 14,000 ventilators. Till September 15, 2020, the government had distributed slightly over 50 percent, i.e., 32,862 ventilators to the states, of which around 20,000 were installed in the hospitals, as per MoHFW’s response in the Rajya Sabha.

And in the next 8 months, from September 15, 2020 till June 1, 2021, the government managed to distribute only 14,000 ventilators (46,900 subtracted by 32,862); while in 6 months, between May 2020 and September 2020, the government distributed over 32,000 ventilators.

Did the manufacturers delay in supplying the ventilators to the government? The delivery of almost 9000 low-flow oxygen (LFO) ventilators had been held up due to non-payment of dues to the manufacturer, Trivitron Healthcare. However, in course of Quint’s investigation, they could only find out about one manufacturer.

What happened in case of other manufactures and whether there was a delay in payment by the government, which in turn delayed the supply of ventilators, remains unknown.

Interestingly, the government allowed export of ventilators from August 1, 2020, citing in its press release, declining low rate of case fatality of COVID-19 patients. The release also stated, as on July 31, 2020, only 0.22 percent of the active cases were on ventilators across the country.

The question is: Should not the government have allowed export of ventilators only after manufacturers had met the Indian government’s demand?

Trained staff is required to install and operate ventilators, which is a time consuming affair. It would be prudent to make sure to deploy these immediately as we prepare for the third wave. One of the biggest challenges is our capacity to absorb and train medical and paramedical staff to use these high-end oxygen therapy equipment that needs more skills.

As the third COVID wave is imminent, whether the Center will dispatch these ventilators to the states well in time so that hospitals get enough time to install and train their staff, remains a big question. Based on an exclusive published in The Quint.

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