Coronavirus: India in negotiations with China on much-needed medical supplies

Workers of SMG-Hai, a specialised mask manufacturing company, packing masks according to WHO specifications, in Kolkata.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Indian officials are negotiating essential medical supplies from China in anticipation of a possible rise in COVID-19 infections after the current nationwide lockdown is eased.

Official sources told The Hindu that talks with suppliers were taking place at a time when global demand for Chinese medical products was exploding, with deeply impacted countries such as Italy, United States, Spain and Germany ready to make a grab in a typical sellers market. “Everyone is queuing up on the door of China, which had developed largescale capacity to manufacture masks, gloves, coveralls, goggles and boot covers to meet the one-time surge in domestic demand. But now with the pandemic inside the country contained, China is uniquely positioned to undertake largescale exports,” the official said.

Procedural rigidity

In competing for relatively scarce products, India is not hampered by funds, but more by procedural rigidity. “As of now, there is no shortage of funds which are available through various channels, including the newly created PM Cares Fund, the one billion dollars provided by the World Bank among others, including the Asian Development Bank,” the source said.

But India’s by-the-book approach limits the options. “At this time suppliers, who have competing orders, want that you put cash upfront to secure your consignment. This is not the time for lengthy tendering processes or worrying about nitpicking by auditors in the future. The system at this time is being tested for its flexibility,” the source said.

Officials acknowledge that costs of the medical equipment from China has gone up substantially. “A mask which used to cost less than one dollar is now being sold for anywhere between $4-6,” the source said.

Indian medical planners are also grappling with devising a fool-proof method to ensure that equipment of sub-standard quality is not imported. Sources point out that many State governments earlier ended up with below-par products from China, after they were told to supplement medical stocks that were being pooled in by the Central government. “In anticipation of the possible demand in India, Indian missions in China in December itself had advised stocking up from Chinese suppliers. Given the shortage of time, the Central and the State governments were simultaneously engaged in this exercise,” the source said.

In the current cycle of procurement, it has been decided that only 20 reputable companies recommended by the Chinese government will be the focus of purchases, to avoid buying from many spurious firms who have found their way on to e-commerce platforms.

India’s shortage of freighter aircraft, which can haul huge amounts of cargo is also now likely to be addressed once consignments begin to flow. “The empowered committee on transport will address this problem. Because they are chemically treated, medical kits are specially packed with dry ice and other material. This increases the volume and weight of the packages, which large freighters can easily ferry,” the source said.

The size of medical consignments is especially large because of the single-use coveralls, masks and other equipment. “There are two types of coveralls. One is single use which is then incinerated, while another one of better quality can be used 5-6 times. Imagine the consumption on a national scale as each medical kit is used for a single shift of a few hours,” the source said.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 8:30:36 AM |

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