A time of crisis is not just a time of anxiety and worry. It gives a chance, an opportunity, to choose well or to choose badly- Desmond Tutu
Today is the fifth day of the lockdown. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared 21 days lockdown amidst coronavirus pandemic all over the country starting from 24 March. The situation is quite grim. People are panic buying and many migrant workers are stranded in different parts of the country due to the unprecedented shutdown of transportation mediums.
When I sat on my desk to write the blog, India already had close to 1000 cases. I have no idea, by the time, I finish this blog, how many new coronavirus cases will be tested positive in India. As per an article published in The Print, India can see 30,000 Covid-19 deaths by May 2020 and there will not be any hospital beds left by June 2020.
Health has never been a priority for a diverse, heterogeneous and developing country like India. It can be ascertained with the fact that the first National Health Policy for India came in the year 1983 after 35 years of the existence of the Indian republic. Till now, we have seen only three National Health Policies in place, released in the years 1983, 2002 and 2017.
India still spends less than 2 % of GDP on health when it has 18% of the world’s population. Not only the country gave health a low priority but even the national political parties have relegated the health as a non-issue when it comes to policy priorities for the development of the country.
India has a very low Human Development Index (HDI) and high HDI rankings over the years. India was ranked 129 out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index rankings. Health (life expectancy at birth) is one of the three dimensions to decide HDI rankings. HDI has also stagnated in recent years despite India being the fastest growing economy of the world.
The primary health care infrastructure of the country is in shambles due to a lack of financing and an acute shortage of medical personnel. 65% of health expenditure is out of pocket and some 57 million people are sent to poverty every year due to this expenditure. India has a severe shortage of trained medical professionals. As per the Economic Survey 2019-20, the doctor-population ratio is 1:1456 against the WHO recommendation of 1:1000. The largest number of malnutrition children are found in India.
The substandard performance of India’s healthcare system is out in the public amidst the coronavirus outbreak. However, this crisis is an opportunity for India to make India’s healthcare system one of the best in the world. Systematic overhauling of health infrastructure is the need of the hour. Heath as an issue needs to be prioritized. It needs to become a priority politically, economically and socially.
Politically, ‘right to health’ needs to be recognized as the fundamental right through an act of Parliament. Some of the Indian states have better healthcare indicators. Heath is a state subject under the Constitution of India. Therefore, best practices from these states need to be replicated across India. Panchayati Raj Institutions can play a major role in providing leadership to deal with any health crisis.
Economically, health expenditure to India’s GDP should reflect the proportion of the population living in India. The current expenditure is inadequate. The Government of India (GoI) must increase its expenditure at least 5 % of its GDP from this year itself. Other measures like public-private partnerships, increasing health penetration etc. should go on simultaneously.
Socially, awareness towards cleanliness, sanitation, and hygiene needs to increase in our country. Maintaining hygiene and cleanliness should be declared as ‘issue of national importance’. People should also vote for those representatives who give importance to the issues of education, health, employment, etc.
This is high time to realize the value of health as we can see, how the coronavirus outbreak has affected every aspect of human lives. Health is one of the most important ingredients in the ‘human development approach’. Healthy human beings can only bring overall development and growth in the world.
This coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for India to create a world-class health infrastructure, strengthen public institutions, adopt best practices from other countries, increase public health expenditure by 5 % of its GDP, and declare “right to health” as a fundamental right for the people of India.
These are personal views of the author.
(Author is Director of Advocacy at Center for Law & Policy Research, Bengaluru. She tweets at ritambhara4)