Scenes of absolute chaos unfolded outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium near Chennai Central railway station on Saturday, as hundreds of frantic relatives of those down with COVID-19 crowded the gate. Despite tired legs and parched throats, all their eyes were set on one goal—the antiviral drug Remdesivir. Saturday marks the first day since the Tamil Nadu government shifted the sales counter for Remdesivir from the Government Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital (KMC) to the Nehru Indoor Stadium in an attempt to reduce crowding. However, what unfolded outside the My Lady’s park gate of the stadium seemingly defeated the purpose of the move.
Remdesivir has been in high demand in the second wave of coronavirus infections in India. Despite several expert doctors and government officers including the Director of Public Health repeatedly saying that Remdesivir is not a life-saving drug and that there is no enough evidence to point to its role in treating COVID-19,, hundreds of anxious caretakers and relatives of COVID patients continue to line up to lay their hands on the stock. The government of Tamil Nadu has been repeatedly saying that Remdesivir is not a life-saving drug and that there is not enough evidence to point to its role in treating COVID-19. Things worsened after the Union government issued a directive to the manufacturers of Remdesivir to sell the drug only through government channels and not to private parties. Following this, the state government issued a statement that the drug can be bought directly by private hospitals in the state from the Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation (TNMSC). However, as caretakers of COVID-19 patients continued to run from pillar to post looking for Remdesivir vials, the state government opened a counter to sell the drug to eligible candidates at the KMC in the last week of April.
This led to people thronging KMC from across Tamil Nadu to procure Remdesivir, armed with a prescription from private hospitals. Things got more complicated after several people who queued up in front of the counter at KMC alleged that only 450 tokens were issued in a day, and those who did not receive the tokens were being sent back by the officials. The government of Tamil Nadu then ordered that Remdesivir be supplied to specific government centres in several districts, so that people from all over the state need not travel to Chennai to buy the drug. To ease the crowd, the government recently shifted the sales point to Nehru Stadium, in an attempt to prevent crowding. The government, in its announcement, also added that only 300 tokens will be issued per day for those who need the drug. The sales at the Nehru Stadium counter began on Saturday, and visuals from the spot show chaos and crowds, defeating the purpose of the shift.
Competing in the chaos
A man, who had queued up on Saturday to buy the medicine said that there were no proper arrangements or information about the counter anywhere. “All of us are just standing here. There is no information on anything...all they have done is set these bamboo barricades up,” he told a news channel. He added that officials at the gate told those in line to “wait anywhere”.
His allegations about lack of proper information or sign boards were echoed by a small section of the crowd of caregivers, who sat down in protest demanding better arrangements to provide basic information to those in line to buy the drug.
“I registered my name for the medicine on May 10 at the KMC (counter) but couldn’t get the drug. They told me to come on the 11th. Then yesterday (May 14) I went to KMC and they told me that I will get my medicine from the Nehru Stadium counter on Saturday,” a man waiting for entry into the stadium told another news channel. “My token number was 96. I came here in the morning and the police have no clue about this. They gave irresponsible answers. I told them that I have already registered and asked where I should stand. They said ‘you can stand anywhere’ and that they don’t have any separate queue or any information,” he added.
Another woman said that, had the government issued the medicine to private hospitals, caretakers like her need not spend days in a crowded place like this. “If they (the government) had issued this to the hospitals, we wouldn’t be in such a mess. As soon as the hospitals put admission to the patient, they give the prescription asking us to bring six vials of Remdesivir...they don’t know the ordeals we go through to procure that,” she said.
Doctors who are experts in critical care have repeatedly pointed out that Remdesivir is not a life-saving drug. Incidentally, the most recent COVID-19 case management protocol released by the government of Tamil Nadu does not even mention Remdesivir.
Dr N Sridhar, Consultant Intensivist and Head of Critical Care in Kauvery Hospital, reiterated that Remdesivir is not a must-have in the treatment for COVID-19. He also attributed the rush to procure Remdesivir to doctors prescribing it to patients, mostly due to helplessness. “They (doctors) want to do something to make the attenders happy and there is this lack for scientific reasoning here. They would want the caretakers to feel better that the ‘doctor is doing something to make the patient better’. Many doctors do that,” he explained. However, he said that it is impractical for the state government to issue Remdesivir to all private hospitals across the state in a bid to reduce crowding at such counters.
“I think what might work now is for the state government to start a massive public campaign with persons who have been cured of COVID-19 without using Remdesivir, to assert that Remdesivir is not a crucial drug. The messaging around the role of the drug needs to be better at this stage,” he pointed out.