Govt mulls campaign to halt panic buying amid coronavirus outbreak

A medic conducts screening of a patient as part of a precautionary measure for novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, at a government run hospital in New Delhi | PTI photo
Such is the scare of the new coronavirus that protective gear such as masks and sanitisers are briskly going out of stock from retail outlets. The Centre is contemplating launching a consumer awareness campaign, telling people not to panic while buying these items. Manufacturers, especially micro, small and medium enterprises are seeing a short-term opportunity in this and are lining up to make these products. 

Sample this: The Gujarat Food and Drug Control Administration has approved 100 product licences for hand sanitisers in the last one week alone. Speaking to Business Standard, HG Koshia, commissioner of Gujarat FDCA, said the government has approved product licences on a fast-track basis to ensure that there was no shortage of these items in the market. “We gave 100 licences to around 40 manufacturers to make hand sanitisers in the last one week alone,” he said.

Sanitisers are a Rs 300-350-crore industry in India, and in the last one month, the demand has jumped 10-fold, claimed industry sources. Manufacturers are registered with state FDAs and there is no centralised database in this regard. 

Prices of masks (especially N95) and sanitisers as well as gloves have shot up significantly. Masks, for example, are selling for Rs 40-50 a piece, up from Rs 10 a piece. For N95 masks, which are considered to be more effective, the prices have shot up from Rs 150 per mask to Rs 500.  The health ministry has placed orders for eight million masks and other protective gear.  The Centre last week invoked the Essential Commodities Act to declare these items as essential commodities till June 30.  It is also mulling a public awareness campaign soon to tell consumers not to buy in panic. “There are myths around wearing masks and using hand sanitisers. The reality is that only infected persons, doctors and caregivers need masks. Similarly, hand washing with soap is more effective than using an alcohol-based sanitiser,” said a government official.  

In fact, sources pointed out that wearing re-usable cotton masks, now being sold at traffic signals, can expose one to more germs than they can imagine.  Rajiv Nath, forum coordinator of Association of Indian Medical Device Industry said that there is now an entire cottage industry to make masks. “Using these unwittingly is likely to cause more harm than good,” he said. 

The health ministry is thus considering launching a consumer awareness campaign soon on the lines of the one already in motion on hygiene and other precautionary measures. “There is now a lot of panic buying. This is causing an artificial demand for these items and the person in real need may not get them,” said a senior government official.  

Moreover, state FDAs are conducting raids to crack down on hoardings by distributors and unauthorised makeshift manufacturing units that have mushroomed overnight. Another issue being faced by legitimate manufacturers is that there is a cap on how much alcohol they can procure to make the sanitisers. 

“Alcohol is the main raw material and one cannot procure any volume that they want. It is a controlled ingredient. So, with a 10-times demand jump, manufacturers cannot procure the amount they suddenly require. Plus the plastic components (like nozzles) for packaging are sourced from China. Makers are now trying to use locally available packaging,” Nath added.

Earlier, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority had requested the health ministry to notify the above items as drugs with immediate effect. This will enable the regulator to regulate prices and make available the surgical and protective masks.

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