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States cite surge to extend lockdown; death toll across country climbs to 206

The Union Health Ministry on Friday denied evidence of community transmission (CT) of COVID-19 while reporting at least 700 new cases since Thursday evening. The nationwide death toll from the epidemic touched 206, and the Ministry confirmed 6,761 positive cases.

The Ministry’s response follows an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) report on Thursday of nearly month long surveillance of 5,911 randomly chosen samples of patients who exhibited Severe Acute Respiratory Illness (SARI), whom 104 tested positive for COVID-19. All but two were tested between March 21-April 2 and 40 had no history of international travel or contact with someone with travel history but had picked up the infection, indicating community transmission, the ICMR said.

Over the last few weeks, there have been reports from several States of people testing positive but who were unable to explain the possible source of the infection. However, the Health Ministry has consistently maintained that this was not evidence for CT.

Health Ministry spokesperson Lav Agrawal said all of the cases of SARI were from districts where there were confirmed cases of the disease and that travel histories of those SARI patients were being investigated. “We’ll be the first ones to tell if you if such transmission has begun,” he said.

The Health Ministry response comes even as States have announced an extension of the lockdown beyond April 14 citing CT; Chief Minister Amarinder Singh declared on Friday that CT had been observed in Punjab.

Ensure resumption of units, urges Dept. of Pharmaceuticals

A countrywide shortage of medicines and medical devices is likely in the coming weeks, the Department of Pharmaceuticals has warned the Home Ministry, urging it to take immediate steps to help drug makers resume production under the current lockdown.

Drug and medical device makers are functioning “…on an average, at only 20%-30% capacity during the lockdown,” as per feedback from various industry formations, Department of Pharmaceuticals Secretary P.D. Vaghela pointed out in an April 9 communique to Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, which has been reviewed by The Hindu.

Export demand

“If the production does not reach the pre-lockdown level soon, it could lead to shortages of medicines and medical devices in the coming weeks,” the letter said.

Underlining that half of India’s output of pharmaceuticals is exported as global markets offer better prices, the Department of Pharmaceuticals stressed that this could lead to disproportionate shortages in the domestic market, calling for suitable measures to be taken “in the right earnest” to prevent this “avoidable” situation.

Production units engaged in making essential commodities, including medicines, vaccines, masks and their ancillaries had been exempted from the restrictions imposed as per the three-week national lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24.

Though several States had already imposed restrictions on mobility and production by then, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister had urged State governments to ensure such production work continues, at a review meeting on March 22.

Since then, repeated missives from the Home Secretary to the State governments to ensure that the production and movement of essential goods is not hampered hasn’t changed things on the ground, prompting the Department of Pharmaceuticals to raise the issue afresh.

Unmindful of risks, village elders work with govt.

In charge: Village elders putting up a barricade at Salang village in Arunachal Pradesh. Special Arrangement

A ‘red army’ of wise old men and women are helping villages across some hill States in the northeast keep the novel coronavirus away.

Though a majority of those felled by the COVID-19 pandemic are aged 60 years or more, this hasn’t stopped the gaon buras (male villager elder) and gaon buris (female village elder) — usually referred to as GBs — from following their predecessors in forming a shield between the villages and the enemy — in this case, the virus.

The village elders across the States are distinguished by their red coats provided by the government, which also pays them a stipend of ₹1,500 per month.

“The villagers look up to us in times of crisis as well as happiness. It is our duty to ensure their safety and liaise with the government agencies for guidelines and in maintaining order,” said Tanom Mibang, one of the three GBs of Lileng village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Siang district.

Mr. Mibang is 64, although the Assam Frontier (Administration of Justice) Regulation of 1945, under which GBs are appointed, prescribes the 35-60 age slab. A majority of Arunachal Pradesh’s estimated 9,500 GBs are 60 or more. A head gaon bura, who supervises five GBs, is usually older. Talom Tamut, who Mr. Mibang reports to, is 80 years old.

Sharing tasks

At just 43, Yachang Tacho of Salang village in Upper Subansiri district, is a rare exception. “The population of a village decides the number of GBs. During epidemics and disasters, we put our heads together to decide what is best for the villagers and share the responsibilities,” he told The Hindu.

Imnakumba Longchar, 59, of Khensa village in Mokokchung district of Nagaland, plays a similar role. “Keeping everyone calm is a major challenge,” he said.

Assisting the GBs in Nagaland are the dobashi, the custodians of Naga customary laws who also wear red coats. They have been salaried government employees since 1842 when the British appointed the first dobashis for interpreting Naga dialects into Assamese or Hindi.

Arunachal Home Minister Bamang Felix said the importance of village veterans was evident from the inclusion of the powers of the GBs in the Constitution. “They are indispensable,” he said.

She was our last tangible link to the legendary artiste

Shanti Hiranand

With the passing of singer Shanti Hiranand (1932-2020), early on Friday morning after a brief illness, an era, first shaken to its core by the passing of Begum Akhtar in 1974, finally comes to an end. For nearly five decades, almost single-handedly Shanti Hiranand kept the music of her legendary Ustad alive. With her gone, so has our last tangible link to Begum Akhtar. For nearly five decades Shantiji performed and recorded ghazals, dadras and thumris in the tradition of Begum Akhtar but also diligently taught it to many who wanted to be a part of the great singer’s tradition. Shantiji taught music almost until the last months of her life.

Shantiji was born in Lucknow into a forward-looking business family which encouraged education and did not frown on her interest in music and even enrolled her in Bhatkhande Music Institute at the age of six or seven. She moved to Lahore briefly with her parents where she first recorded for radio. After Partition, she returned to Lucknow and continued to sing for the radio. Around this time Begum Akhtar, after her brief retirement from music, had formally returned to recording for All India Radio.

In 1952, an official at the radio station suggested to the young Shanti that perhaps she could learn from Begum Akhtar. In her memoir Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi, Shantiji recalls this first meeting. Without an appointment, she had taken a rickshaw and turned up at Begum Akhtar’s house and after a brief wait was granted an audience where a harmonium was forwarded towards her for an impromptu audition. She sang a bhajan in raag pilu.

She admits, “I had no idea what raag pilu was. I had just learnt the bhajan as one would learn any filmi song. Since I was performing on the radio at the time, I was used to the radio station sending me a song set to a particular tune and I would just go and record them. I also did a lot of choral singing. I had a high-pitched voice and I could sing loudly.” Begum Akhtar complimented her and asked her what she wanted to learn from her. Shanti didn’t know what to say because as she admits, “I had no idea about her music or what I wanted to learn from her.”

This fortuitous meeting led to classes from the next day onwards. Soon she had practically moved in with her teacher because Begum Akhtar, whimsical as she was, would teach only when she was in the mood. Soon Shanti was an appendage of the family. She was joined by another student, Anjali Banerji, and Begum Akhtar did what no other female artiste has done before – marked them as formal students and herself as a formal Ustad by conducting a ganda-bandh ceremony.

Begum Akhtar, being the tempestuous person she was, tested this guru-shishya relationship hard and it goes to Shantiji’s credit that she was never found wanting and stayed unquestionably loyal to her Ammi till her end. She never said a word that could be considered disrespectful of her Ustad though there is still today an audience hungry for salacious details of her Ustad’s life, and many egged her to tell tales.

She went even beyond keeping her mouth shut. She saw to it that the place which is the final resting place of her guru lived up, even if minimally, to the stature of the artiste she was. Along with keeping Begum Akhtar’s music alive, this will be to the eternal credit of Shanti Hiranand.

The Begum Akhtar era is formally over. As Shanti sang in her first recording, a Shakeel Badayuni ghazal:

Fasana e shab e gham khatm hone wala hai

‘Shakeel’ chand sitaron men ji nahin lagta.

(The story of the night of grief is about to end

‘Shakeel’, the heart is no longer distracted by the moon or the stars.)

Saleem Kidwai is a Lucknow-based historian and author.

Minister says country is unlikely to face an ‘unmanageable crisis’ from COVID-19

Ready for challenge: A municipal worker spraying disinfectant in a makeshift hospital in Mumbai. Aadesh ChoudhariThe Hindu

India is unlikely to face an “unmanageable crisis” from COVID-19, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said at an online conference organised by the India Foundation. He was addressing international delegates, according to information on his official Twitter handle.

Were matters to deteriorate, India had enough infrastructure to tide over the crisis, he said.

“We have 500 dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, 200,000 beds across hospitals and 50,000 ICU beds. We have ordered everything in plenty. In the last two months, we have ensured adequate testing facilities. We started with one lab and today we have over 200. Over 150 are public labs.”

Multiple strategies

As on Friday, the Ministry has reported 6,761 cases and 206 deaths. Dr. Vardhan said India had multiple strategies in place to contain the pandemic. For more than 15 cases in a district, we have a ‘large outbreak’ strategy and for less than 15, a cluster containment strategy, he said.

According to guidelines released by the ICMR this week, both strategies involve active surveillance for cases and contacts in an identified geographic zone, expanding testing to all at risk in these places and improving hospital accommodation capacity.

“In another way, COVID-19 has come as a blessing in disguise” he remarked. Until now, India had largely relied on importing Personal Protective Equipment for health care workers. However, with rising local demand and shortages, the government had, via the Ministry of Textiles, authorised 39 manufacturers to make such equipment locally.

“From next week, 10 lakh PPEs are expected, as well as 48,000 additional ventilators,” he said.

Hails health officials

He also addressed a conference with health officials from various States and “congratulated them” for keeping the situation under control, according to a statement from the Press Information Bureau. He exhorted all States to establish at least one dedicated COVID-19 hospital in every district.

States ought not to be neglecting the treatment/medical needs of pregnant women, dialysis patients and those suffering from thalassemia and must improve access to mobile blood donation.

Everyone should download the Arogya app as it would help assess the risk of infection, the press statement added.

Countries that received clearances for import of the drug express gratitude to government

In demand: India has lifted the ban on the export of some drugs, including hydroxychloroquine.AP

The Union government on Friday said India had “sufficient buffer” of the much-in-demand drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). Export of the drug to several countries had begun, it said.

Researchers believe there is a chance that the drug can treat coronavirus infection but it is yet to be clinically proven.

“A lot of requests of HCQ are already there and taking into view the domestic stock and requirement and keeping sufficient buffer, a decision was taken by the Group of Ministers to release some of the surplus medicine for export purposes,” Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said.

The government’s move won it many expressions of gratitude from countries that received clearances for their medical supplies, which had been held up for weeks after the Directorate General of Foreign Trade banned them for export.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the decision. “We have to jointly fight this pandemic. India is ready to do whatever is possible to help our friends,” Mr. Modi tweeted in reply to Mr. Netanyahu. “India is committed to contribute to humanity's fight against this pandemic,” he tweeted to Mr. Bolsonaro. Acting British High Commissioner also thanked Mr. Modi for releasing paracetamol stocks for his country.

Exports of HCQ and paracetamol were banned last week but the government overturned the ban on April 6, allowing the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Department of Pharmaceuticals to assess requests from various countries. Twenty-four other drugs that were put on a restricted list in March have been cleared for export as well.

Domestic estimate

“In the next week, we will require one crore [10 million] HCQ tablets for domestic use. We have over 3.28 crore. [So] this will complete the entire month’s requirement,” Mr. Agarwal said, dismissing reports of domestic shortages of HCQ as a result of the decision. Another 2 crore were in production, he added.

However, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor criticised the government for the move. He alleged that it was not putting “India first”.

External Affairs Ministry officials said exports were being cleared for more than a dozen countries in three categories: humanitarian aid, aid to neighbouring SAARC countries, and commercial orders to countries such as the U.S. and Brazil, who have pushed the most for the release of HCQ orders for which their companies had made payments. “We are in the process of providing humanitarian aid in the form of pharmaceutical and other items, including HCQ & paracetamol, to SAARC countries and to Mauritius and Seychelles. We would also be providing these items to some countries in Africa and Latin America,” an MEA official told The Hindu.

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