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While dealing with various issues arising out of the COVID-19 crisis, the Court noted that the wages being paid to ASHA workers were "hardly sufficient for survival."
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 were some of the issues taken up by the Bombay High Court yesterday.
Justice Manish Pitale took up the following issues, while hearing a batch of PILs pertaining to concerns arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Court was told that the reliable test for diagnosis of COVID-2019 is the Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction Machine (RT-PCR) and that the Rapid Antibody Test can, at best, be used for surveillance purposes.
The Court was further informed that efforts are being made by the State Authorities to make RT-PCR machines available for COVID-2019 tests and that those that are not functional are being updated for being made functional.
As far as Rapid Antibody Tests were concerned, 71,000 kits were earlier received for distribution in COVID-19 hotspots.
However, the Court was told that rapid tests 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 rapid tests.
However, appearing for a petiitoner, Advocate Tushar Mandlekar told the Court that the ICMR letter had merely indicated that Rapid Antibody Test kits from two Chinese companies ought not to be used and that such kits were to be returned. It did not disclose any police deicion to do away with Rapid Antibody Tests.
The Court went on to note that, in any case, 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 to Rapid Antibody Tests 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.
Bombay High Court
The Court proceeded to direct the State to file an affidavit regarding the steps proposed to be undertaken for conducting Rapid Antibody Tests with the reliable kits available for the purpose of surveillance, adding that,
"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."
A plea 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 led the Court to take serious note 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."
Bombay High Court
The Court added, "Even if the amounts of 1000/- per month and 1500/- ₹ 1000/- per month and that ₹ 1000/- per month and that per month i.e. total of 2500/- per month is being paid to ₹ 1000/- per month and that the ASHA workers, it is hardly sufficient for survival of such workers. In fact, it is not even remuneration of 100/- per ₹ 1000/- per month and that day to such ASHA workers. It is distressing that those at the forefront of the war against COVID-2019 are meted out with such treatment by the public authorities..."
NMC's counsel S M Puranik informed the Court that a proposal had already been sent to the Union for payment of Rs.200/day under Project Implementation Plan (PIP) and as soon as funds are released by the Centre, this daily allowance will be paid.
It was clarified to the Court that the Corporation was suffering from a financial crisis and that in order to make further payments to the ASHA workers, the Centre's help would be very crucial.
The Court has, therefore, proceeded to direct,
"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."
If these steps are not taken, it was cautioned that the Court would resort to passing specific directions in this regard.
Amicus Curiae Anup Gilda raised concern that the government facilities to test for COVID-19 RT PCR method are under strain. Therefore, he urged that the Government expeditiously allow private or semi-governmental facilities to test for COVID-19 as well.
The Court was told that in order for private labs to get permission to test for COVID-19, they had to apply to the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) as well as the ICMR. The State further submitted that at present only one such application is pending, contrary to apprehensions that several such applications have not been processed.
The Court has told the Government, in any case, to expeditiously decide on the pending applications made by Government/Semi Government/private entities, so that more RT PCR testing facilities are available at the earliest.
Another plea was filed praying to issue directions to conduct RT-PCR tests for all doctors, all health workers and Police personnel on the frontlines in the war against. the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Court, in turn, 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 petitioner raised serious concern over the ineffectiveness of the Authorities in taking proper steps to contain the same. The Court has issued notice and asked the State Counsel to get instructions availability of testing facilities in the region.
The Court has also asked the State to respond on a plea urging that the Mharashtra Government should emulate the Kerala Model to tackle the pandemic, and in a plea filed citing grievance over the "uncontrolled establishment" of hospitals in certain densely populated areas amid the pandemic.
The matter will be next heard on May 5.
[Read the order here]