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India’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been timely and effective: Q&A with Consul General Dr. Swati Kulkarni

Consul General Dr Swati V. Kulkarni talks about India’s efforts at responding to COVID-19, US-India collaboration on developing a vaccine and the Vande Bharat mission.

India has seen rise in total number of COVID-19 cases. Can you brief us on how India is responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

India’s response to this huge crisis has been timely and effective.  Hon’ble Prime Minister Modi extensively consulted all stakeholders including Chief Ministers of States. The Government worked out a comprehensive and coordinated approach towards this unprecedented pandemic within the framework of a democratic and federal polity. The pro-active and decisive steps ensured the strengthening of medical infrastructure and eventually, a low death rate and high rate of recovery. Despite the size of our population, the ratio of our positive cases per million remains the lowest at 538 and that of deaths per million remains at 15, compared to the global average of 1453 and 68.7 respectively. The active cases remain around 300,000 and our fatality rate is at 2.7% lower than the world average of over 5%. The silver lining is that India has seen a robust recovery rate i.e. recovery rate of 64%. While Maharashtra, the state with the highest caseload, continues to see a rise, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, also major hotspots, are seeing a more gradual decline in daily case numbers.

How has the Government of India ramped up the country’s health infrastructure?

The lockdown period of about two and half months was utilized for strengthening health care facilities. The COVID strategies revolved on three important pillars i.e. testing, contact tracing and strict containment measures. Grass root health workers, called ASHA workers are helping in testing and contact tracing in remote areas. Indigenously developed digital tool called Arogya Sethu App is being actively used for contact tracing, and is currently being used by over 140 million people in the country. We have a network of over 920 laboratories. Testing has been scaled up to 400,000 tests per day and this has been possible by augmenting domestic manufacturing capacity of testing kits especially RT-PCR and Antibody test. About 75% of kits are indigenously developed. The central Government with a close coordination of State Government has massively scaled up the country’s number of hospital beds and intensive care capacity. As an example, a 10,000-bed facility was created in Delhi within a week in a public-private partnership program. Supply of PPEs and masks is work in constant progress. The PPE kit manufacturing has increased 56 times from zero within a span of few months. Our health care professionals i.e. doctors, nurses, paramedics, volunteers etc. totaling about 1.6 crores are handling the crisis at personal risks to themselves. Our largest public funded health care program in the world called ‘Ayushman Bharat’ – National Health Protection Mission – is useful for testing and treatment of the underprivileged. It provides health coverage to 500 million Indians.

Tell us about ‘Vande Bharat’ Mission exercise.

As of 13 July, more than 600,000 Indians stranded in different parts of the world have returned safely to their homes. We are currently seeing Phase IV of ‘Vande Bharat’ Mission. The Consulate handled Phase I, Phase II and extended Phase II of the ‘Vande Bharat’ Mission in association with Embassy of India in Washington, other US Consulates and Air India offices in the USA. More than 700 passengers from the South- East USA availed of this repatriation facility. From Phase III onwards, the operations were handled by Air India under the aegis of Embassy of India in Washington – we helped passengers to understand the required modalities to avail of Phase III and we are still helping them in Phase IV.

Brief us about the collaboration between India and USA on COVID vaccine development and other drug-related areas.

We have ongoing collaboration in vaccine development – Serum Institute Pune has collaboration with Codagenix and University of Pittsburg and Bharat Biotech with University of Wisconsin and University in Pennsylvania.

Indo-US Science and Technology Forum has invited start-up to start-up proposal against COVID-19. 400 proposals have been received. They will be processed on fast track basis. 

The virtual network program for sharing research resources is being done – sharing reagents, virus proteins etc.

US Gilead Sciences entered India to boost supply of potential COVID drug Remdesivir. The US company has signed deals with seven Indian pharma companies – Cipla, Hetero Labs and Jubilant Lifesciences, Dr Reddy’s etc – to manufacture the generic version and expand the supply of the drug. The drug will cost just US$ 72. The injectable Remdesivir for 6 days treatment will cost about US$ 432, equivalent to what it costs one day treatment in US.

In India, about six local companies are developing a vaccine against Covid-19. The Government has given permission to Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila to start phase I and II human clinical trials for their most advanced vaccines named Covaxin and ZyCov-D respectively. 

PM Modi said recently that his Government has put forward a vision of ‘ Atmanirbhar Bharat’ a self-reliant and resilient India. Tell us more about this vision.

Prime Minister’s Atma-nirbhar Bharat scheme is a post-pandemic plan that is aimed at helping the economy recover from the impact of Covid-19. The Special Economic Package of US $ 270 billion – 10 % of the country’s GDP – has been announced by the Prime Minister. It intends to carry out structural reforms in the economy. Our relief package has been smart and targeted to provide the poorest with the most help. Thanks to technology – JAM trinity – at the click of a button- every penny has reached the beneficiaries directly and immediately. Apart from cash in bank accounts, the relief included providing free cooking gas to over 80 million families, free food grains to about 800 million vulnerable people under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna. This scheme of free ration has been extended till November 2020.

Reforms are in place in agriculture sector, defense manufacturing (foreign investment limit has been enhanced to 74 %), mining, civil aviation, space, atomic energy, and infrastructure. Reforms are introduced in MSME sector that employs over 110 million people and contributes nearly 29 % of GDP. There is focus on manufacturing.  A focus on self-reliant India – India that is self-sustaining and self-generating.

Now, we are on the path of opening up, and are unlocking the lockdown. Containment zones have been identified where restrictions continue to remain in place. Economic activity is slowly coming back to normal in other parts. We have detailed plan of re-opening. In the first phase, restrictions on domestic air and train travel has been lifted; most economic activity has been resumed. In the second phase, we will review opening of schools and colleges and in third phase, other activities and international travel will resume.

You may have heard Hon’ble Prime Minster Modi’s speech on July 9 where he addressed the India Global week 2020 organized in the UK. During his address PM Modi emphasized India’s talent force. How India’s professionals, doctors, nurses, bankers, lawyer, scientists, professors, our hard-working laborers in the world are playing a leading role in global revival and are creating two-way synergy that is greatly beneficial.

What services are currently open at the Consulate?

Applications for Passport, OCI and Renunciation are accepted, and the services are rendered through our outsourcing agency, CKGS, as in the normal course. 

Applications for miscellaneous consular services are accepted and the services are provided by post as walk-in has been suspended. 

Visas are issued only to certain categories of foreign nationals who need to visit India for compelling reasons.  The applicants should contact the Consulate by e-mail at: cons.atlanta@mea.gov.in to get prior approval for the submission of visa applications.

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