NEW DELHI: Earlier this week, when the number of COVID-19 cases in India had already crossed 10,000, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike published an advertisement in newspapers for four posts of epidemiologists on contract under the National Health Mission.
This advertisement caught the attention of many public health specialists for two reasons -- the hiring of such crucial health workers at this point of time when the country is the middle of a health crisis seen after nearly a century and the ridiculously low salary of Rs 25,000 per month.
The qualification required was MBBS with PG degree or diploma in preventive or community medicine or public health or epidemiology or medical graduates with six months experience or masters in public health or epidemiology with six months experience.
This advertisement by the urban local body in Bengaluru came just two days after the Chhattisgarh government too called in applications for state and district level epidemiologists -- specialists who study patterns of frequency and causes and effects of diseases -- on contract and on salaries that were deemed too low for the qualification and experience required.
Madhya Pradesh and Assam too are reported to have made moves to appoint these crucial workers in the last one week.
These examples expose yet another chink in the claims by the government that it has been ready to deal with the public health crisis since January.
Sources in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Ministry conceded that there are over 220 vacancies for epidemiologists, who form the backbone of the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP), at district and state level.
“We wrote to states earlier this month asking them to urgently fill the vacancies,” an official told The New Indian Express.
He said that at least ten states -- Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Haryana, Mizoram, Tripura, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Telangana -- did not even have a state-level epidemiologist at the beginning of the month prompting the Centre to shoot a letter to them.
Community medicine experts said this situation would have been avoided by making a far-sighted plan in January when the outbreak was still confined to a province in China.
“First of all, there should never be vacancies of these crucial posts but even if there were, they should have been filled in a timely manner and rationally,” said Dr Sanjay Rai, president of the Indian Public Health Association, who teaches community medicine at AIIMS, Delhi.
Dr Prabir Kumar Das, a public health specialist from Nagpur, said the shortage of epidemiologists could be particularly detrimental for effective usage of the IDSP, which is most significant in exercises such as contact tracing and understanding disease pattern at local levels.