According to the Indian National Health Profile, 2019, there are approximately 0.55 beds per 1000 population in the country. To put this in perspective, Italy, US and China have 3.2, 2.8 and 4.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people respectively.

Even while India targets to increase this to 2 beds per thousand people, the World Health Organization mandates for at least 3 beds per 1,000 people in the country considering its large size. 

Further, with the continuing spread of coronavirus in India, an estimated five to ten per cent of total patients will require critical care in the form of ventilator support in the coming days. In a worst-case scenario, the number of cases in India could rise into millions which would require about 110,000 to 220,000 ventilators.

This clearly presents a problem requiring a huge national effort to combat the ongoing threat. In a video conference held on March 25th Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, Chairman of the Railway Board VK Yadav, General Managers of all zones and Divisional Railway Managers proposed an initiative to meet or at least contribute significantly to the country’s demand for medical infrastructure and equipment.

First, the Indian Railways, which runs 13,523 trains daily - 9,000 passenger trains and 3,000 mail express services daily - had already suspended all passenger services till March 31st. This period has now been extended till the national lockdown ends-April 14th.

Second, the proposal dictates how railways' production units could be used to manufacture essential commodities like ventilators, beds and trolleys on a large scale to meet the growing demand. 

Indian Railways’ has also manufactured hand sanitiser in small quantities as a trial run and following this, a number of regional divisions have now begun production. Asansol division of Eastern Railways has produced 500 litres of hand sanitiser for its workforce while the Jodhpur division too, has come out with about 215 litres of hand sanitisers.

Third, the Indian Railways will provide its coaches and cabins as isolation wards for coronavirus cases. Coaches and cabins could be used as hospitals on wheels, equipped with consultation rooms, medical stores, Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and pantry. Impressive in its scope and making use of India’s complex railway network, these hospitals could be set up anywhere in the country where adequate facilities are not available. Production of units could begin immediately with requiring much effort or resources. 

While the exact specifications of the plan have yet to be finalised, officials have been asked to identify locations in their respective divisions where coaches can be parked with adequate arrangements made to ensure continuous electricity supply to these coaches.

This innovative solution comes not a moment too soon as across the board, private and public players are working to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak in India. A brilliant mobile solution, this could provide an increase of at least 10,000 isolation wards using 20,000 coaches along with increased accessibility to locations with minimal or no healthcare facilities.

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