Fears that India’s health system will buckle under pandemic strain

Yasir Ahmad has worked as a microbiologist in India’s capital New Delhi for the past four years. For him, the outbreak of the coronavirus could prove apocalyptic for the country’s weak public healthcare system.

Ahmad mentioned the deaths of 60 children in a hospital in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 due to a lack of liquid oxygen as a worst-case example of how the public healthcare system is managed.

He fears how such a system can cope with the coronavirus pandemic which has resulted in a lockdown being put in place until April 14.

As of April 6, India has 4,288 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 117 deaths reportedly due to the virus.

“But this could be just a tip of the iceberg,” Ahmad said.

The number of infections could be much higher than what the government knows and what is currently being projected, he said.

“The problem is that there is not enough infrastructure here that could detect the exact number of COVID-19 positive cases,” Ahmad said.

Jitender Yadav, a government employee in Delhi, said if the lockdown doesn’t contain the spread of the virus the situation in the country could become unthinkable.

“The hospitals aren’t equipped enough to cater to the basic ailments of the people in normal times,” Yadav. “Even when the country like Italy which has one of the best healthcare systems in place couldn’t control the mayhem, imagine where India stands in the entire scenario,” he said.

A worker arranges beds to prepare a quarantine center in an indoor stadium at the Sarusajai Sports Complex during a govt-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Guwahati on March 29. (Photo by Biju Boro/AFP)

India spends 1.15 percent of its GDP on public healthcare much below the global average of 6 percent. Official figures reveal that only one doctor is available per 11,082 Indians. A doctor-population ratio of 1:1,000 is recommended by the World Health Organization.

In the countryside the situation is worst.

According to the report by Indian Health Statistics, there are 369,351 government beds in urban areas and a mere 143,069 beds in rural areas in India. In rural areas the doctors to population ratio is lower by six times as compared to urban areas.

Researchers and critics say a lack of political willpower has proved detrimental in improving India’s public healthcare system.

Church offers help

The Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI) is doing what it can to help the country deal with the pandemic.

The CHAI director general, Father Mathew Abraham, told LiCAS.news that the association has informed the government of its full support. CHAI runs more than 3,000 healthcare and social service institutions across India; including 647 hospitals.

“We are working actively with the government in this matter. With the supply of requisite protective equipment that consists of garments to protect our health care workers, we will be able to work at the grassroots,” said Father Abraham.

A Caritas van dedicated to spreading awareness on the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Peerzada Ummer)

Caritas, the Church’s social service arm has adjusted its efforts to dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and are participating in awareness campaigns on issues such as the importance of social distancing. A helpline has also been established.

Father Paul Moonjely, the group’s executive director, said they’re aiming to supply hygiene kits comprising hand sanitizers, paper soaps, and face masks to where possible.   

“Another 5,000 families of daily wage laborers, slum dwellers from Dalit and marginalized communities who have lost their daily wages due to lockdown will be provided food kits to sustain their families,” was another example that Father Moonjely gave.

Related Stories