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Centre must rein in states to create extra ICU beds as Omicron surge looks unstoppable

Devsagar Singh

New Delhi, Jan 4: It is downright irresponsible on the part of the state governments to ignore ramping up health infrastructure at a time when the new Covid-19 variant Omicron  has begun to spread fast. According to union health minster Mansukh Mandaviya  the states have collectively utilised only about 17 per cent of the Rs 23,123 crore emergency Covid-19 response package (ECRP-II)  to ramp up medical infrastructure approved by the union cabinet last August. India  has reported five-fold increase in coronavirus cases over the last seven days to 33750 on Monday. The cumulative active cases have crossed 1.22 lakh.

Based on its experience in the second  Coronavirus wave last year, the Centre had approved the plan for creation of  23056 ICU beds across states. Under this plan,  seven states were to set up more than 1000 beds each: (UP 4007, Karnataka 3021, Maharashtra  2970, West Bengal 1875, Tamil Nadu 1583, Madhya Pradesh 1138 and Andhra Pradesh 1120). Similar targets were fixed for other states as well. These targets have largely been unmet.

Health being a state subject, the Centre may not have the constitutional authority to implement the plan by force. But these are no ordinary times. A pandemic  has afflicted the world. If the states are playing truant, the Centre must take over. In emergency situations, it must have an overriding authority. If a legislation is required for it, the Government has enough strength in parliament to carry it through.

There are Opposition leaders, like  West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for example, who will resist any attempt of the Centre to expand its area of authority in the name of federalism. This should be unacceptable. It is like not doing one’s own duty and disallowing others to do it either. It just happened in the BSF case when the Centre empowered the force to expand its jurisdiction to 50 km in the border areas to arrest crimes like smuggling. Mamata was the first to oppose the measure   alleging that the  BJP Government at the Centre was trampling over her state’s authority on the India-Bangladesh border region.

At a time when the new and faster spreading coronavirus was afflicting the country, there can be no excuse for ignoring health infrastructure.  Why were less than 20 per cent funds spent on creating ICU facilities? This is merely because the states gave less priority to the measure. Yet another reason is lack of any central oversight with punitive measures.

Having burnt its fingers during the devastating second wave, the Centre  may not be too  enthusiastic either to take every responsibility  itself. It will find it easier to deflect crticism. But the real loser are the people, the unsuspecting public. Imagine what would happen if the new surge becomes uncontrollable. There would be shortage of ICU beds in the country. If the hope is on the decreased virulence of the new strain, it is misplaced, to say the least. The Government must not leave any stone unturned so far as public health is concerned. The Centre must step in even at this late stage to rein in  states to create ICU beds decided upon almost six months ago.

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