On 18 May, India crossed an unlikely milestone—it became the second largest producer of personal protective equipment (PPE) globally. It’s no mean feat; India went from producing zero to 450,000 PPE kits a day in less than three months. 

The shortage of PPE kits, the world over, had been a stumbling block in the fight against Covid-19. Without access to quality PPE, frontline healthcare workers (HCW) even donned donned BBC The NHS workers wearing bin bags as protection Read more  garbage bags to protect themselves against the virus. Demand outstripped supply.

In India, for starters, HCW had never needed heavy-duty PPE in such large numbers before. “The only PPE we ever used were basic 3-ply surgical masks. No hospital had invested in PPE before,” says Shuchin Bajaj, founder-director of the Ujala Cygnus group of hospitals. That changed with Covid-19, a virus that could allegedly spread through water droplets and aerosol.

What followed was a mad scramble for PPE kits, especially for head-to-toe coveralls. The government had already stopped the export of PPE in January. But there was little to no domestic production to fill the huge demand gap.

The government, to its credit, quickly swung into action. Procurement tenders—through HLL Lifecare Limited, a public sector health company—flew thick and fast. It encouraged some of the biggest names in the textile business such as Aditya Birla Fashions, Welspun, and Wildcraft to join the domestic production effort. A slew of small to medium enterprises jumped in too. With PPE in short supply, prices had shot up 6X.

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At the height of the demand bubble, says Rohit Singh, people were willing to pay up to Rs 2,500-3,000 ($32-39) per PPE kit, which consists of a coverall, a mask, face shield, gloves, shoe covers, and caps. Singh runs a small enterprise out of Rajkot, Gujarat called KTEX Nonwovens, with a production run of 400-1,000 PPE coveralls per day. Even the cost of a 3-ply surgical mask had jumped from Rs 0.80 to Rs 15 (<$0.20).

 Meeting the design specifications, however, wasn’t straightforward. India had been a producer of medical gowns, usually worn in the operation theatre. For Covid-19 however, the coveralls need to be sealed shut to avoid contact with the virus. This, says Singh, requires a special “hot-steam sealing” machine. 

“When we started in February, there was little information about these PPE coveralls. So we started supplying them without the taping,” says Singh. Gradually though, information about the international ISO ISO ISO The International Organization for Standardization is an international standard-setting body composed of representatives from various national standards organisations 16603 specifications trickled into the market.

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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