Covid exposed cracks in healthcare systems, not only in low- and middle-income countries, but also in high-income countries. India, too, saw its healthcare sector stretched thin — with inadequate public health infrastructure, shortage of hospital beds, lack of emergency equipment and supplies, and limitations in data systems.
According to data released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the pandemic has claimed over half a million lives in the last three years in India.
With a Covid comeback remaining a very real possibility, this is not the time for the Modi government to let its guard down.
Readers of Economic Times Online agree on the importance of healthcare spending, given the situation. In an online poll of readers ahead of the budget, almost half (47%) of the respondents said the Modi government should focus on education and healthcare — the two basic necessities — in this budget.
The poll covered 5,600 ET Online readers to get their views on a host of issues the budget should tackle, including taxation, inflation and healthcare.
To the question “When it comes to spending, what should the Modi government prioritise on?”, some 31% of the respondents said the government should focus on fixing the country’s creaky infrastructure; 17% said it was time to boost India’s renewable energy plans, while about 6% said defence should top the government’s priority list.
The lingering threat of Covid
The SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to be a never-ending threat since the pandemic broke out in 2020. Even though most of the world has gotten a grip on the pandemic that shuttered the world for almost two years, recent data from China shows that the threat is far from gone. Latest reports show China recorded 60,000 Covid-related deaths in just over a month — between December 8 and January 12.
Cases have been rising in the United States, too. At least 26 cases of XBB.1.5 — the coronavirus variant behind the surge in Covid cases in the US — have been found in India so far. The variant has been found in 11 states and Union territories till now, including Delhi, Maharashtra and West Bengal.
Given this situation, the ET Online poll asked its readers what measures India should take if the Covid situation worsens. Nearly half of the respondents said the government should ensure availability of all medical facilities and also foot the bill.
In the wake of the pandemic, a significant budgetary increase for the healthcare sector had pushed India’s health expenditure to 2.1% of GDP for the first time in 2021-22, bringing it close to the government’s policy aspiration. This is within touching distance of the government’s healthcare expenditure target of 2.5% of GDP by 2025, as envisaged in the National Health Policy, 2017.
On if another lockdown would be viable in case the situation deteriorates, 40% of the respondents voted against the idea, saying that the government should keep mobility options open so that travel and transportation would not be hindered; 5.8% said another national lockdown would be a good idea. An almost equal number of the respondents were of the opinion that the Modi government should announce more fiscal measures with direct cash transfers.
When asked about boosting healthcare in the country, two things stood out. While 43% of the respondents said that the government needed to increase its budgetary outlay to fix the healthcare sector, 47% said more than increasing the funds, the government should focus on successful implementation of its policies.
India has learnt from the pandemic and introduced initiatives to ramp up response and manage future health emergencies. In an article in ET Online, Kaustabh Basu, Partner-Social Sector, PwC India, pointed out such moves.
“The launch of the Aarogya Setu application during the Covid-19 outbreak allows communities to participate in disease surveillance. Furthermore, initiatives such as the Pradhan Mantri-Ayushman Bharat Infrastructure Mission (PM-ABHIM), National Digital Health Mission (NDHM), One Health Consortium and Integrated Health Information Platform (IHIP) are also steps taken to prepare better for health emergencies,” Basu said.
The pharmaceutical industry has proven to be a dependable partner during the Covid crisis by ensuring there was access to adequate countermeasures.
“With the roll out of schemes for strengthening the pharmaceuticals industry, the country is well-placed to incorporate measures for manufacturing preparedness and response for health emergencies,” Basu added.