This article is written by “Ritika Sharma” from “Ansal University” and curated by Himanshu Raj of CNLU Patna.
The government has been taking several pre -exempted, timely and proactive measures for prevention, containment, and management of COVID- 19. Panic buying has resulted in depletion of stocks and exorbitant prices in the markets. Enough and more emphasis has been laid on the use of masks and hand sanitizers. From the world Health Organization (WHO), to countries around the world, including India, have actively promoted the use and benefit of N- 95 masks and hand sanitizers in battle against the virus. It is in fact mandatory to wear masks while stepping out in public.
Wearing a mask has benefit in many ways; first, they can filter out the viral particles from the air as we inhale. This is especially true for high -grade protective gear, like N-95 masks used by Health Care workers and frontline COVID warriors, which block up to 95 percent of microbial particles, but obviously less for the looser fitting cloth or surgical masks available for everyday use. Still studies also show that multilayered cloth masks -using a combination of tightly woven fabrics, or containing a pocket for a filtering material – can offer protection against aerosolized droplets.
Equally important, or perhaps more so, there’s a growing body of evidence that wearing masks protects others as well. That is, these face coverings help stop the viral particles that an infected person might be exhaling into the space around them, especially important with COVID – 19 because so many people don’t realize that they are infected. That raises the risk that supposedly healthy people, who think they have no need to wear a face mask, are actively spreading the virus.
The Ministry of Health and Family Affairs has in fact, while notifying the guidelines on rational use of personal protective equipment, made the use of N-95 masks mandatory by all heath care workers in hospital settings. The move comes as panic buying by people resulted in stocks of masks and hand sanitizers disappearing from markets. They are being sold at exorbitant prices in areas where the supplies exist. However, talking particularly about N-95 masks, the government has failed to ensure the availability of these masks at reasonable and affordable prices.
On March 13, 2020 the essential commodities order 2020 was notified by ministry of consumer affairs, government of India, and the following products were declared as essential commodities:
- Masks (surgical masks and N95 masks)
- Hand sanitizer
Once a product is declared as an essential commodity, section 3 of essential commodities act empowers the central government to pass orders inter alia controlling production, supply, and distribution of said product. Order controlling prices can also be passed.
On March 21, 2020, in exercise of these powers, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs fixed the price for 2ply & 3ply masks and hand sanitizers order 2020.
In spite of being declared as essential commodities by the previous order on March 13, 2020, the prices of N-95 masks were conspicuously missing from this order.
The national pharmaceutical pricing authority (NPPA), an attached office of the department of pharmaceuticals, ministry of chemical and fertilizers, came into picture from April 1, 2020. The NPPA is an independent Regulator for pricing of drugs and is tasked with the job to ensure availability and accessibility of medicine at affordable prices.
However, with the effect from April 1, 2020, all medical devices including N-95 masks have been notified as drugs, vesting jurisdiction with NPPA to control their prices.
The NPPA has issued a list of price reduction in N95 masks by four major producers namely; Venus safety and health, Magnum Health & Safety, Yash care Life Sciences and Joseph Leslie & co. seemingly some have lowered the price of their product.
Seemingly, the list seeks to demonstrate that the makers of these masks reduced the cost of their products, some up to 47 percent, after NPPA issued an advisory on May21, 2020, to manufacturers, recommending them to voluntarily slash prices.
It was issued after PIL’s were filed about exorbitant prices of N-95 masks and demands for price cap on these masks. Recently, the NPPA had informed the Bombay High court, through an affidavit, that capping the prices masks at this point of time might “disincentives domestic manufacturers” at a time when the masks are needed in great quantities. The affidavit mentioned that the government procures the largest chunk of N-95 masks directly from manufacturers/ importers/ suppliers at bulk rates and ex- factory prices while in another part it is stated that the price range of these masks in market in between Rs. 45 to Rs. 350.
Speaking about NPPA’s reluctance to fix the prices of N-95 masks, a source close to the development said, “There are a limited number of manufacturers in the country and nearly 90 per cent of their production is procured by the government directly. If the government fixes the prices of N-95 masks, there are high possibilities that the market will witness a shortage of N-95 masks. And in that condition, if the country has to import, then for each mask, they will have to spend a minimum of two dollars, which will be much higher in comparison to these prices. Looking at the consumption demand it will not be a viable move”.
But, as per guidelines issued by the Health Ministry on May 15, 2020, N-95 masks are also to be used in non- COVID areas of treatment such as ENT clinics, emergency rooms, eye clinics, labor rooms, ambulance transfer etc. this has increased the demand for these masks. Moreover, healthcare workers in these places will have to buy these masks from the retail market. Hence, ensuring that they get these masks at affordable and reasonable prices is imperative.
However, earlier, there have been reports that despite price caps on 2-ply and 3- ply surgical masks; many pharmacist and chemist have been selling them at inflated prices, which may also have contributed to rising concerns about the prices of N-95 masks among the medical fraternity, healthcare workers and public health activists.
For now, the NPPA has said that it hopes more manufacturers will cut their prices in larger public interest and informed that this situation will be closely monitored.