Early in March, a 37-year-old lab technician at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (MGIMS) in the western state of Maharashtra got sick at a time when the coronavirus pandemic was still not high on the Indian government’s agenda.
“He had pneumonia in both his lungs and his condition was severe enough to be put in the intensive care unit (ICU),” Dr SP Kalantri, the director professor of medicine at MGIMS.
The lab technician’s breathing was assisted by mechanical ventilation.
“Our nurses are trained to take care of such patients day in and day out – it wasn’t something new,” said Kalantri, who is also the medical superintendent of the MGIMS-run Kasturba Hospital.
“But there was a diagnostic possibility that he had COVID-19.”
The entire MGIMS staff was nervous when they sent a sample to a regional lab in Nagpur city for testing. They were worried that if it turned out to be a COVID-19 infection, others could have been infected, and in turn, infected their families.
The staff of another hospital in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra and the country’s financial hub, had already been quarantined after a patient tested positive. So when the test came back negative, everyone at MGIMS breathed a sigh of relief.
A sense of alarm
There is a sense of alarm among healthcare professionals across India as the country hunkers down in wait for what many believe will be a tsunami of coronavirus cases.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation last Tuesday, announcing a countrywide lockdown for 21 days.
“It is going to help stop the spread of the virus to an extent, but it is also a time for the healthcare infrastructure to prepare itself,” Dr Yogesh Jain, a doctor who works in Bilaspur district of Chhattisgarh state, told Al Jazeera.
Jain, like most medical professionals, is deeply concerned over shortages of protective health supplies, such as masks, gloves and coveralls, known as personal protective equipment (PPE).
“The prime minister said nothing about that,” he said.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the government was planning to procure more PPE domestically and was also exploring imports from South Korea and China.
In Chhattisgarh, six cases have so far tested positive for COVID-19, one in the district where Jain works as a doctor. But the low number of recorded cases across the country might be a result of the government’s strict guidelines on who can be tested.
“Apart from those six reported cases, we have many patients who are showing symptoms of COVID-19,” said Jain, who has no coveralls or disposable 3-ply face masks, fewer than a dozen N-95 masks and just a few sets of gloves at his hospital.