The Union government has been blamed for sitting on a pile of essential medical tools such as ventilators and oxygen concentrators while daily thousands of COVID-19 patients hustled for oxygen cylinders and hundreds died gasping for breath.

Three men in PPE unloading medical aid from foreign countries for COVID-19Twitter: NITI Aayog
news COVID-19 Friday, May 14, 2021 - 13:56

Days after the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) stated that COVID-19 relief aid was being distributed effectively in response to concerns raised by media reports, The Reporters’ Collective has found that the government’s own records contradict that claim. In fact, it takes more than a special cell comprising at least 10 top-level government officials to clear out foreign COVID-19 aid from 28 countries piling up at airports since April 25. A review of the ‘restricted’ internal government database on COVID-19 aid shows India received 57,69,442 medical items till May 4 out of which 3,05,721 items were yet to be allocated as on May 6 – the day the database was last updated.

The aid received from Kuwait on May 4, for example, had not been allocated until the last update. Kuwait aid alone accounts for 3,02,514 units. This was the status two days after the Health Ministry publicly stressed it has ensured effective distribution of foreign COVID-19 aid. The database gives the details of consignments allocated, which have not been made public by the Ministry of External Affairs.

Until May 6, of the 57 lakh-plus items received, 23,62,538 were shown as ‘on the way’ to destination, including items received as early as April 30. One such early consignment took days to reach Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) from Palam airport where it landed – roughly 10 km away.

Post May 6, a government official said there was either no update on the database or details weren’t being shared among ministries. Much of the information was broken, the official said.

The information black hole exists despite the government having a “special cell” up and running “since April 26”, and stating on May 4 that it worked towards “effective distribution of the medical and other relief and support material”.

The Union government was blamed for sitting on a pile of essential medical tools such as ventilators and oxygen concentrators while daily thousands of COVID-19 patients hustled for oxygen cylinders and hundreds died gasping for breath.

The MoHFW, on May 4, termed “misleading” a news report that said the government put up standard operating procedures (SOPs) for distributing the medical supplies in place only as late as May 2. But it unwittingly conceded that SOPs were indeed notified on that date.

In a separate press release on May 4, it stressed that its allocation process has worked great. “A streamlined and systematic mechanism for allocation of the support supplies received by India has been put into place, for effective distribution of the medical and other relief and support material.”

Restricted database showing a large consignment from the US that arrived on April 30 remained in transit as late as May 6

The Reporters’ Collective reached out to the Ministry of External Affairs and the MoHFW with detailed queries about the aid India received but received no response so far.

The Reporters’ Collective previously reported, for Article 14, that the Ministry of External Affairs had made urgent late evening deployments to its COVID-19 Cell only on May 1. Duties of this cell included coordinating foreign aid arriving in India.

The Ministry, on May 4, said, “The Union government did not waste time in effective allocation and distribution of COVID-19 pandemic relief material.”

“The work for receipt, allocation and distribution to the States and UTs through the Central and other Health Institutions started immediately as the global community started to support the Government of India efforts for fighting the global pandemic,” it added.

On May 12, NITI Aayog tweeted that 95% of donations received have been delivered to rightful beneficiaries “without delay” but at least one state health secretary The Reporters’ Collective spoke to said that consignment delivery took time and they did not receive the full amount they were supposed to.

Kerala’s Health Secretary Dr Rajan Khobragade told The Reporters’ Collective on May 11, “We have received only a few units of oxygen concentrators that were dispatched 7 days ago, even though the order quoted a larger amount. We’re yet to receive any other item. They say HLL is the agency so we are following up on that.”

HLL Life Care, a Union government-owned corporation, processes customs and regulatory clearances at the airport.

The Reporters’ Collective reached out to officials at AIIMS Patna on May 11 to track the delivery of rapid detection kits from the US due since April 30. The hospital’s superintendent, Dr CM Singh, said they had received the kits even though it could not be confirmed if they were from the US.

Singh said the consignments arrived “a day or two ago”.

As the government’s allocation of critical foreign COVID-19 aid has come under scrutiny for lack of transparency, NITI Aayog set up a COVID-19 aid platform for private donors to check the status of their contributions. But it is out of bounds for the public.

And amid the lack of clarity, Twitter handles run by the Ministry of External Affairs and India’s Customs Departments continue to pat each other’s back over delivery of foreign aid.

Shreegireesh Jalihal is a member of The Reporters’ Collective (www.reporters-collective.in).

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