India’s health infrastructure is not equipped for Covid-19

| Updated on March 06, 2020

Coronavirus cases could require more than a week of hospitalisation, while India, according to the OECD, has less than one bed for 1,000 people

The ‘new coronavirus disease’, or Covid-19, has not assumed lethal dimensions in India even as it has claimed about 3,300 lives worldwide and infected over 95,000 people. Its mortality rate at about 3 per cent may not seem exceptionally high, but it can be threatening for the elderly or the middle-aged with a history of respiratory problems. Like most diseases, immunity levels of an individual seem to play a role in determining whether Covid-19 becomes dangerous — which it does in perhaps 10 per cent of the cases. Covid-19 is contagious because the symptoms take a long time to manifest themselves, by which time the carrier may have transmitted the virus to a number of people. While the Centre has done well to begin screening all international travellers arriving in the country, ‘thermal screening’ works only when the symptoms show up. Tracing the individuals an infected person has been in touch with and quarantining them makes sense because of the virus’ incubation period. This is how Kerala nipped the far more dangerous Nipah virus in the bud in 2018 and 2019. In the absence of any medicine so far, the Centre and the WHO have focussed on personal hygiene as the best form of prevention. While urging people to exercise caution, the government has rightly advised against panic-induced behaviour. There is ample evidence of the latter — with gloves, masks and hand sanitisers disappearing from the market.

However, with the exception of Kerala, India is not equipped to handle a major health emergency. The productive capacities of basic medical equipment and medicines must be ramped up. Coronavirus cases could require more than a week of hospitalisation, while India, according to the OECD, has less than one bed for 1,000 people. China is estimated to have more than four beds for 1,000 inhabitants, while Japan and South Korea have over 12 beds per 1,000 people. According to World Bank data, China is estimated to have 1.8 doctors for a population of 1,000, against India’s 0.8 doctors. Japan and South Korea have 2.4 doctors for a similar population. Our abysmal rank of 102 in the Global Hunger Index underscores endemic low immunity. The deaths of children from encephalitis in Gorakhpur and Muzaffarpur point to a deadly cocktail of deprivation and poor health facilities.

Quackery and superstition have a field day in the absence of reliable public health infrastructure, for which poor budgetary outlays on health are to blame. Hopefully, this episode will serve as a wake up call for stepping up health outlays.

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Published on March 06, 2020
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