India’s state railway operator is to convert carriages into medical wards for coronavirus patients amid fears the country’s healthcare system will be swamped by a surge in infections.
Indian Railways said it would refurbish dozens of coaches to turn them ino “field hospitals” to meet the demand for isolation wards for patients suffering from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.
The railway operator’s passenger services have been shut down during a 21-day nationwide lockdown imposed by the government on March 24 to curb the spread of the virus.
India has reported more than 30 deaths and more than 1,200 infections, far fewer than many smaller nations affected by the pandemic.
But its poor healthcare infrastructure, dense urban populations and a lack of widespread testing have raised fears the number of cases could rise rapidly among its 1.3 billion population.
"We have to be prepared … we don't want to sit idle," Indian Railways executive director Rajesh Dutt Bajpai told The National.
"It is an unprecedented decision for Indian Railways as we want to contribute in containing this crisis and help the government in its fight against coronavirus."
The company has converted one railway coach into a prototype medical ward and is awaiting permission to convert 10 more a week across its 16 zones.
"We are converting 5,000 coaches into isolation wards in the first phase," Mr Bajpai said.
“We are keeping everything ready and whenever there is a need, we can contribute in a big way in this pandemic.”
India's Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal posted images of the converted carriage on Twitter.
"These wards will be equipped with necessary facilities for patients, doctors and nurses," he said.
“This mechanism will play an important role in isolating patients and preventing the spread of the coronavirus."
Railway officials said it would take two days to convert the carriages into wards and these could then be sent to rural areas where healthcare facilities were scarce.
The prototype carriage has an area for patient beds, cabins for medical staff, bathrooms and power points for medical equipment.
Indian Railways normally operates 20,000 passenger trains per day, carrying 23 million people across the country on its 115,000-kilometre rail network, the second largest rail system in the world.
Health experts issued a warning that 20 to 60 per cent of India’s population could contract coronavirus in the coming months if the country failed to enforce quarantines, social distancing measures and other restrictions to control its spread.
India has also bolstered its healthcare facilities and converted public buildings such as schools and colleges into quarantine areas for asymptomatic patients.
It has ordered thousands of ventilators to treat critically ill patients, but experts say even a slight increase in the number of cases will overwhelm the country's facilities.
India spends only 3.5 per cent of its GDP on public healthcare, with a large section of the population deprived of basic medical care as they cannot afford to go to private hospitals.
The country has only 23,582 state-run hospitals with 710,761 beds – a ratio of one bed for every 1,844 people, according to the World Bank.
India has a shortage of doctors as well, with one for every 1,457 people, which is lower than the World Health Organisation standard that says there should be of one doctor for every 1,000 people.