As Indian Pandemic Worsens, Social Networks Save Lives – Government Promotes Alternative Therapies
India has received emergency COVID-19 supplies from several countries.

PUNE For two weeks now Sijo Raju, along with a group of 20 young men and women, have been fielding calls from family members looking for oxygen cylinders, ventilator beds and ambulances. Finding a match can take a few hours as India’s overwhelmed health system and front-line healthcare workers try desperately to provide a semblance of care to the massive number of COVID patients.  

In the absence of a centrally coordinated response, citizens like Raju have stepped up. They verify messages posted online, guide family members to facilities with resources, and do their best to step in place of a government machinery that has effectively abandoned its citizens. 

“There is just too much information on the internet,” Raju told Health Policy Watch. While the group members, most of them in their 20s and 30s, are based in the Mumbai metropolitan area, they are now trying to help verify requests coming from across India and are among many such citizen groups that have banded together in the past few weeks.   

On 1 May, India reported over 400,000 cases – a record-high figure in the history of the COVID-19 pandemic so far. It was also the day the country officially lowered the age for those eligible for vaccines from 45 and above to 18 and above.

The government had placed orders for the additional vaccines that would be needed just two days before vaccination was to be expanded, and not surprisingly most young people aren’t able to find slots as they try to register for vaccines.  But Adar Poonawalla, whose company Serum Institute of India (SII) is responsible for supplying the bulk of the vaccines, said given that the orders were recently received, ramping up production would take still time.

Cases continue to rise in India overwhelming the country’s already fragile health infrastructure

Promoting Alternative Medicines
Meanwhile, India’s government is promoting a poly herbal drug named Ayush-64, calling it a “ray of hope”. The drug is being promoted by the Ministry of  Ayurvedic Medicines, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH). Alternative therapies are widely popular albeit not without controversy as mainstream treatments in the pandemic. 

The government said the drug has been found to be useful in mild to moderate cases. It is also promoting yoga as a way to “strengthen natural immunity”. Most COVID-19 cases are mild to moderate that require little to no treatment under normal circumstances.

“The claims made about certain AYUSH interventions in the absence of quality clinical studies and data being presented is unfortunate,” said Anant Bhan, a bioethicist and global health policy expert based in India.

“It could lead to reliance on interventions which could not be working, and take the focus away from interventions which do. As is the requirement with allopathic medicines, any claims about AYUSH interventions and utility in COVID-19 needs to be backed by data.”

Indian government’s push for alternative medicines comes at a time when Indians are in need of a planned COVID-19 response and urgent ramping up of health facilities. 

The country’s cases have been on an upward trajectory since March when Prime Minister Narendra Modi held massive election rallies in the state of West Bengal and allowed the Hindu religious event Kumbh Mela to go on that saw gathering of thousands of devotees to perform rituals by the holy river Ganges. Both these events ended up being super spreader ones and worsened the pandemic.

Restrictions continue in many high burden states in India and the popular cricket tournament Indian Premier League has also been postponed. The tournament had come under heavy criticism for continuing despite rising COVID-19 deaths. The secretary of the Board of Cricket Administration is Jay Shah, the son of India’s home minister Amit Shah, a key figure in the Modi Administration.

Aid Distribution and Vaccine Rollout

After India’s pandemic made headlines around the world, the country started receiving aid. Ireland became the most recent country to send aid and US aid has also arrived. Despite this, ordinary citizens continue to struggle for basics based on messages on social media. 

The government issued a statement saying that the aid will be distributed based on the number of cases and the need in the states – after questions were raised in the Indian media about the plans for distribution. 

This while the public waits for the Serum Institute to ramp up its production further.

India’s Supreme Court has also pulled up the Modi administration for failing to regulate the prices of the vaccines. Currently vaccine manufacturers are offering different prices to the centre and state governments, as well as private players, as Health Policy Watch reported in an earlier story.

Health experts have said this would set a dangerous precedent while policy experts have criticized the government for its handling of the vaccine distribution.  

Disha Shetty is an independent journalist based in Pune, India

Image Credits: @MEAIndia -Ministry of External Affairs, Spokesman's office , Our World In Data .

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