Indian Railways converted 5,601 railway coaches into emergency COVID-19 isolation wards to deal with an expected surge in critical COVID-19 cases, but only 135 of these were ever put to use, data from the ministry of railways reveals.
Indian Railways spent a total of 38.30 cr — or about 68,380 per coach — to equip these compartments with certain basic medical facilities and turn each of them into 7 to 9 viable COVID-19 patient monitoring and isolation pods.
“For conversion of these coaches into isolation wards, minor modifications like removal of middle berth and conversion of one toilet into shower room was carried out with provision of medical facilities and other items,” according to the ministry.
Indian Railways was told to convert these coaches into isolation wards around April of last year, when there was a fear in government circles that the number of COVID-19 patients requiring 24-hour medical care in the country could hit lakhs or even millions.
At the same time, India did not have enough capacity in its hospitals to take care of the isolation needs of millions of patients.
Therefore, these railway coaches were asked to be prepared as a back-up option, in case the country ran out of hospital and other, tent-based isolation facilities.
Train-based isolation facilities also had the added advantage of being highly mobile, and allowing them to be moved quickly to COVID hotspots in remote areas without proper healthcare infrastructure.
Ultimately, only three states even came close to filling up their institutional capacity — Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — and asked for these modified railway coaches.
Out of the 5,601 modified coaches, Delhi requisitioned 503, while Uttar Pradesh asked for 270 and Bihar took delivery of 40.
Even though close to about a fourth of the country’s population — or about 350 million people — are estimated to have caught the infection according to serosurveys — the actual number of people who required institutional monitoring and care has so far been less than 1 million (0.35%) or so.
This is in sharp contrast to countries like Italy and Spain, where an estimated 3-5% of those who caught the virus required institutional care.
It is believed that Indians have greater ‘natural immunity’ towards the coronavirus, which helped keep the symptoms of COVID-19 under control and allowed more than 99.6% of the patients to recover without any help from the authorities or health care facilities.
It has been speculated that the low rate of complications from COVID-19 among Indians may be because of several reasons, including the widespread use of anti-viral spices — such as turmeric, ginger, garlic and pepper — in Indian cuisine, as well as acquired immunity to coronaviruses in general due to high prevalence of coronavirus infections in the population, particularly in farming communities.
For now, Government of India has instructed Indian Railways that it can reallocate these coaches back into passenger service operations if the age of the coach is less than 20 years old. Older coaches have been asked to be kept as a standby, given the rising case numbers in the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 in India.