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Dak, Dawa aur Dua: A Made in India story

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The alliance between India Post and India Pharma Inc is an interesting example of how intersectoral collaborations can optimise the potential of existing resources and address complexities to achieve important public health goals

Once upon a time in India, red vans carrying letters, cycle-riding postmen and post boxes were fairly ubiquitous. They were part of our daily lives, harbingers of both joy and sorrow. But, the advent and advance of telecom services and the internet replaced the neighbourhood friendly postman and the postal system in several ways.

However, today, in times of great need, India Post, the world’s largest postal system has proven to be a valued partner to the country’s pharma sector.

So, how did this partnership come about?

A Catch-22 situation

On March 24, 2020, India went on lockdown for a period of 21-days to restrain the advance of COVID-19 infections. Though an opportune decision, taken to prevent the havoc that the novel coronavirus pandemic had already wrought in several other countries, closing down a nation of 1.3 billion people, a move unprecedented in size and scope, wouldn’t be without any consequences.

For the pharma industry, the impact was manifold. As a provider of essential services and commodities, it was exempted from the lockdown but its ancillary services were not. Labour force had dwindled and its supply chain was disrupted. There were huge difficulties, not only in manufacturing but also procurement, transportation and logistics. Nevertheless, the sector was required to step up and ensure that the supply of medicines to the people of India was not disrupted.

As a major producer and supplier of high-quality generic drugs to markets across the world, a lot was being expected of India on the global front as well.  Especially in the war against coronavirus, since India supplies 70 per cent of the world’s supply of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug which is being touted as a ‘game-changer’ against COVID-19.

Thus, India Pharma Inc was caught in a Catch-22 situation when help came in the form of India Post.

A friend in need

On March 28, 2020, Ashok Poddar, Gujarat’s Head of Post Department, Chief Post Master General and the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA) entered into an alliance.

Divulging more details, Dr Viranchi Shah, Senior Vice President, IDMA says, “We had a lot of issues in operating the supply chain during the initial days of the lockdown. During that time, we touch-based with the Post Master General of Gujarat through a video conference to avail the services of the postal department in the cities and districts of Gujarat and other parts of the country.

Shah also shared a note which was sent all the members of IDMA-Gujarat Chapter at that point of time. It states, “The postal system will use its fleet of mail motors to ensure the supply of medicines across the state. Department of Posts will provide this service on a 24X7 basis. The service has begun from March 30, 2020. The Postal Department is also making special arrangements for the supply of medicines to various cities of the country.”

The postal department has charged very reasonable rates and even offered credits for MSMEs. In this time of crisis, the department responded very promptly and helped the pharma industry tackle the challenge when there were no other means available, lauds Shah. It is important to note that since then, the government has taken several other measures to ease supply chain concerns and deal with bottlenecks.

Opining that the postal department has come forward to help the pharma industry at a very crucial juncture, Daara Patel, Secretary-General, IDMA also apprises that all the pharma associations have come together to help their members and resolve the challenges faced by the sector due to these tough times. And, enabling the services of the postal department is one of them. Many companies have already used their services to transport their drugs and medicines.

Initially, consignments were transported within the state of Gujarat but from March 31, 2020, onwards, shipments have been carried to different parts of the country including Maharashtra, MP, Jharkhand, UP, Kerala, Orissa etc., with the help of India Post’s network and resources.

Giving additional details about this partnership, Praditpa Kumar Bisoi, Secretary, Department of Posts says, “Our heads of postal circles reached out to office-bearers of different pharma associations. Then we formed a WhatsApp group comprising representatives of the pharma associations, postal department, railway officials and civil aviation sector to collaborate and draw out an action plan to enable commence operations across the country.”

Well, their efforts bore fruit. Arundhaty Ghosh, Director General, Department of Posts notifies that India Post has helped to transport and deliver over 10000 kg of drugs since March 31, 2020, in a bid to ease the huge strain on the supply chain due to the lockdown. (The figure was given on April 16, 2020, it is going up with each passing day)

Later on, not just drug companies, but also medical devices manufacturers, masks and PPE providers, and even individuals have approached Indian Postal Services to carry life-saving drugs and equipment to different parts of the country.

Bisoi updates, “We have delivered medicines, PPEs, ventilators, COVID-19 testing kits, masks, sanitisers etc. across the country.” He says that their assignments have come from various quarters including ICMR and Department of Health Research.

Consignments undertaken by India Post include:

  • Indian Drug Manufacturers Association booked consignments for Surat, Valsad, Rajkot, Jaipur, Pune, and Kolkata. Gujarat had booked services for more than 3000 kg of medicines in three days
  • Corona testing reagent was moved through cold chain booked at National Institute of Malaria Research and delivered to SGPGI, Lucknow within 18 hours
  • Ventilators booked at Pondicherry for delivery to Ahmedabad and Odisha State Medical Corporations, Dehradun and Raipur.
  • Mylab COVID 19 testing kits have been transported to labs, hospitals and Medical Corporation warehouses in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana. Staff are working round-the-clock to transport these time-sensitive kits to the destination.
  • COVID-19 testing kits from Delhi to Ranchi by RTN from Kolkata delivered at Ranchi Institute of Medical Sciences and Namkum in Jharkhand.

Not all smooth sailing

But, these collaborations have not been without challenges for all parties involved. Be it working at odd hours and travelling to remote locations or operating its vehicles at half loads or even less without considering the impact on its bottom lines, India Post has tried to keep operating in these times of a national health emergency, apprises Ghosh.

She recalls an incident where India Post’s mail motors carried drugs from Ahmedabad to Mumbai airport (the Ahmedabad airport wasn’t functional at that time) and after the cargo was airlifted to Kolkata, collected and transported it to Ranchi. The van, reportedly, reached its destination in Ranchi at 02.00 am in the morning.

Similarly, the pharma industry has also had to contend with quite a few limitations. For instance, India Post doesn’t have cold chain facilities and this limits the types of drugs that it can transport. Insurance of the cargo to mitigate risks is another challenge. As Balaram Mondal, Office Superintendent, Government Medical Store Depo, Bhubaneshwar sector who has also availed the services of India Post to carry medicines to several destinations in his sector and nearby cities states, “Private logistics suppliers charge more than India Post but they also offer more guarantees about the safety of the cargo and thereby minimising risks.” At the same time, he also extols India Post’s assistance in these extraordinary times.

Officials from the Department of Posts seemed willing to make it a collaboration that can work in future as well. Bisoi updates that India Post has a huge network and ample human resources with about 156000 post offices across the country and not less than 1.8 lakh people who can help in delivering essential drugs and equipment for life sciences sector and others too, whenever there is a need.

Ghosh also states that India Post can look at building capacities which will help it assist the life sciences sector if there is enough demand in future.

Now, whether this temporary arrangement can turn into a long-term relationship that stretches even beyond the pandemic remains to be seen.

An answer to prayers

Nevertheless, what is noteworthy is that currently, this collaboration has wrought benefits for everyone involved. It has enabled India Pharma Inc to ensure that the supply of essential drugs and raw materials continues unabated as the world wages a relentless battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. The postal department has been able to showcase its relevance all over again, especially at a time when the country needed it badly. And, for the doctors, healthcare workers and the countless patients they serve, it is an answer to their prayers in these tough times.

Lessons for the future

The partnership between the life sciences sector and India Post also reiterates some crucial lessons for such as:

  • Effective intersectoral coordination and collaborations between stakeholders within and outside the government are key to address complex public health challenges
  • A shared vision compels and inspires partners to actively participate, take more onus and overcome challenges. In this case, a national health emergency has propelled different stakeholders to come together and break barriers.
  • The challenges encountered have taught that weaknesses in our current systems of governance need to be mitigated and strengths should be optimised to reduce healthcare delivery divide and improve our responses to medical emergencies
  • There is more that unites us than divides us. Opportunities to build improved structures that can result in improved collaborations and enhanced outcomes should be seized and leveraged to usher positive change within different sectors and systems.

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