The Bombay High Court on Friday heard a batch of PILs including the possible use of rapid antibody tests as a COVID-19 surveillance measure, the low pay of ASHA workers and the augmentation of COVID-19 testing facilities amongst others
Rapid Antibody Tests as COVID-19 surveillance tool
In this petition the Court was informed that the reliable test for diagnosis of COVID-19 is the Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction Machine (RT-PCR) and that the Rapid Antibody Test could be used for surveillance purposes.
It was further added that the State Authorities were making effort to make RT-PCR machines available for COVID-19 tests and those that were not functional were being updated.
As far as Rapid Antibody Tests were concerned, 71,000 kits had been received for distribution in COVID-19 hotspots, however there were not being taken in view of orders from the Director of Health Services, Pune and the ICMR, which raised questions regarding the reliability of the tests.
However, Advocate Tushar Mandlekar appearing for the petiitoner, informed the Court that the ICMR letter had merely indicated that Rapid Antibody Test kits recieved from two Chinese companies ought not to be used and the same were to be returned while it did not disclose any police decision to do away with Rapid Antibody Tests.
The single bench of Justice Manish Pitale observed that the Rapid Antibody Test kits could be used as a means of surveilling the spread of the virus. The State authorities have, therefore, been directed to respond on steps taken for using reliable kits for surveillance purposes. The judge pointed out,
“In view of the imminent danger of uncontrolled spread of COVID-2019, surveillance could certainly be an important part of the strategy to control such spread of COVID-2019.
The Court has directed the State to file an affidavit regarding the steps proposed for conducting Rapid Antibody Tests with the reliable kits for the purpose of surveillance,
“The respondent State Authorities are directed to undertake such tests at least for the purposes of surveillance …. considering that the results of the Rapid Antibody Tests are said to be quick and hence of assistance to the State Government in deciding its strategy to deal with areas where there is rapid spread or apprehension of rapid spread of COVID-2019.”
Enhance pay for ASHA workers
A plea has been filed by the Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) Employees Union highlighting the pathetic condition of the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers, tasked with door to door survey duties to track COVID-19. The court observed in this regard that,
“… the ASHA workers, who are at the forefront of the war against COVID2019 and who are performing special duties, including door to door survey of houses during such crisis, are being treated in a most unfortunate manner by the Corporation.”
The counsel appearing for the petitioner S M Puranik informed the Court that a proposal for increase in the payment to Rs.200/day under Project Implementation Plan (PIP) had already been sent to the Union and they were waiting for the funds to be released by the Centre.
It was clarified to the Court as that the Corporation was suffering from a financial crisis the Centre’s help would be very crucial in order to make further payments to the ASHA workers.
The Court has therefore to directed,
“The Union of India as well as the Nagpur Municipal Corporation as also the respondent-State Government are expected to take necessary steps before the next date of hearing so as to ensure that the proposed payment of 200/- per day to the ASHA workers is made so that such warriors on the forefront of the war against COVID-2019 are not left high and dry.”
On allowing Private Labs to test for COVID-19
Amicus Curiae Anup Gilda raised concern that as the government facilities to test for COVID-19 RT PCR method were already under strain, private or semi-governmental facilities should expeditiously be allowed to test for COVID-19.
The State submitted that private labs could apply to the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) as well as the ICMR to get permission to test for COVID-19. It was further submitted that at present only one such application was pending as opposed to apprehensions that several such applications have not been processed.
The Court has directed the Government to expeditiously decide the pending applications made by Government/Semi Government/private entities, so that more RT PCR testing facilities are available at the earliest.
State should seriously consider RT-PCR Tests for Doctors, Health Workers, Police etc.
Another plea was filed praying to conduct RT-PCR tests for all doctors, health workers and Police personnel on the frontlines in the war against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Court observed,
“It appears that the Union of India as well as the State of Maharashtra need to now seriously consider the issue of undertaking RT-PCR tests of citizens, residents, doctors, health workers and Police personnel at the forefront of the war against COVID- 2019 and further to consider undertaking Rapid Antibody Tests as a matter of surveillance on citizens and residents of hot-spot areas so that those infected by COVID-2019 are identified and quarantined, thereby helping in the war against Pandemic of COVID-2019.”
Another issue considered by the Court on Friday concerned the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the Amravati District of Maharashtra. A PIL was filed raising serious concern over the ineffectiveness of the Authorities in taking proper steps to contain the diseasd. The Court has issued notice to the State Counsel to get instructions regarding availability of testing facilities in the region.
The Court has also asked the State to respond to a plea seeking that the Maharashtra Government should follow the Kerala Model to tackle the pandemic, and in a plea citing grievance over the “uncontrolled establishment” of hospitals in certain densely populated areas amidst the pandemic.
The matter will be heard on May 5.