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India’s shortage of TB drugs fascinates Wall Street Journal

Another week and another very prominent story in the Wall Street Journal on the inadequacies of the Union Government in dealing with tuberculosis. Including last week story, we make this seven WSJ stories in the past 12 months — it’s encouraging to see India’s poorest are so central to the concerns of one of the most right-wing dailies in North America but odd that their concern does not extend to, for example, starvation, poor hospital care, lack of contraception or many other issues.

The latest WSJ story relates to a very real crisis: government is running out of kanamycin, an injectable antibiotic that is vital to the treatment of multi-drug resistant TB. There was, says the Journal, a protest over the shortage of several anti-TB drugs at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in Delhi on Wednesday of last week. Another hapless bureaucrat is quoted sounding unconvincing — these WSJ pieces follow a pattern.

The story is important and it is surprising that the subject has had so little coverage in the Indian press. Yesterday’s Times of India story, was a rare example but it was a story about TB drug shortages in Allahabad. National problems are referred to only in passing in the last few para’s. The Hindu ran a story last week claiming that the PM’s office had intervened and that pressure was building on the MoHFW. In fact, its story was better, clearer and more comprehensive than that in the WSJ (it talks about the existing dire shortages of paediatric TB medicines). But the story was by a freelancer, not a staff writer.

We do not claim to be able to explain the fascination of the WSJ. The WSJ and the Right enjoy claiming that the state is inherently incompetent and that it cannot be relied upon (an earlier WSJ story alleged that bureaucrats were slowing international efforts to introduce new diagnostic technology across public and private sectors). The main Journal writer has close ties to some of those international organisations that pronounce themselves most frustrated by the Government.

The Indian press probably take the view that there is little to be gained by humiliating the Union Ministry unless it can show that the delays were linked to improprieties in purchasing — for example, in other situations in the past, it has been claimed that the Ministry created circumstances for emergency procurement in order to by-pass normal tendering rules. The evidence for that story simply does not exist. And regular bureaucratic delays are hardly front page news in India.

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