A vision for resurgent India in the post-COVID-19 world

Lockdown: A vision for a resurgent India in the post-coronavirus world

Representative image/PTI Photo

Imagine a post-coronavirus India in which the most important persons in the Union Cabinet are not the Ministers of Finance, Home or Defence but the Minister of Health & Family Welfare. This leader, as the Prime Minister’s pick and the probable PM-in-waiting, refuses to spout the mythical healing powers of gau-mutra and strictly sticks to evidence-based medicine while recognising that traditional medicine is important and has its place in the Indian order of things.

This Health Minister leads a vast team of doctors who are the pride of the Indian civil service, the most coveted positions and respected people in government and society.

CORONAVIRUS SPECIAL COVERAGE ONLY ON DH

This signal change at the top mirrors the change along the chain right down to the bottom, at the district where the Chief Medical Officer (along with an Education Officer) is the most important and resourceful officer of the government in the district, and carries the same financial powers as the Collector and the District Magistrate.

Read: India needs a stimulus. Now!

Primary and Secondary Health Care Centres under her are connected to a dashboard and live data is generated and posted on the health, literally, of the people of India, minute-by-minute. No one complains that doctors are missing, the beds are dirty or that ambulances don’t work. Cases are referred to with speed. There are district hospitals in the public sector or the charitable sector, of the kind run by AIIMS in New Delhi or CMC in Vellore.

Five-star health, though still available, is unfashionable even among the rich because the public healthcare is so good; doctors forced to meet billing targets speak out; hospitals forcing them to do so are prosecuted. Health insurance premia fall dramatically and most treatment is by prefixed and regulated fees or at nominal costs.

This is the vision of an India built from the grassroots up and ready to respond to challenges of a world that has been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic. This is a vision that will require political stamina and huge public spending, of the kind that can trigger a revival in the economy and build it for the future so that our growth takes on a whole new meaning. If India has to move out of COVID-19 to a place where it really heads towards becoming a global power, then there is no escaping the reality that its maximum investments have to be in primary health and primary education; not in bullet trains, smart cities or mega statues.

Today, the picture is of an India on its knees as the poor cannot hold out anymore with the lockdown, and the threat of COVID-19 won’t let us lift the lockdown. Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

India is not the only nation in this conundrum, but India stands apart among the large and fast-growing economies as the one faced with the horror of hunger, helplessness and penury of a very large segment of its population. Suddenly, the bright spots of the Indian economy -- like the demographic dividend, the largest reserve of scientifically trained manpower, the global IT back-end and the country with a new story of rising domestic consumerism -- have collapsed into the real picture of India: tens of thousands walking back home with meagre belongings, hit with police lathis, some weeping and many hungry.

These constitute the “bottom of the pyramid”, that fancy term used to sell to those who can afford to buy only in small units, those who oiled the economy on less than fair wages and then spent some of those on sachets that made our FMCGs look good on the stock exchanges. Yet, when the time came, they were unsupported, shunned and literally put on the streets, and in their collapse they announced the collapse of the Indian economy that has had no means to ensure their food, health and economic security. Where has 7+% GDP growth got us then?

There are other prescriptions for revival of the economy, among them those from the likes of the ASSOCHAM and the National Real Estate Development Council (NAREDCO), which says that industry needs a “stimulus of over $200 billion, with an ability to go up to $300 billion, with $100 billion provided immediately, $100 billion in four months and the last $100 billion in eight months.”

The esteemed Chamber, it seems, has sliced out its cake into three neat mouthfuls and is ready to bite. What if the government pumps it all into healthcare where, by its own account, the Community Health Centres run with a huge order of vacant posts? As on March 31, 2019, out of the sanctioned posts, 79.9% of surgeon, 64% of obstetrician & gynecologist, 77.5% of physician and 69.7% of pediatrician posts were vacant!

If this is fixed, if the investments are prioritised, we will change the ugly numbers that tell us that even today, in so-called modern India, only 21% of mothers receive full ante-natal care.

Fixing this will reduce maternal and child mortality, which will lead to a reduction in the fertility rate, which means parents can invest more in their children and enable them grow to become healthy contributors so that India can reap the real demographic dividend, not the dividend wrested from underpaid, undernourished and under-supported populations who must fend for themselves every time a crisis hits us.

It was 50 years ago that a landmark judgement in the US (Judge Grufein in the Pentagon Papers case) wrote: “The security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone.” The words come alive in an entirely different context today as health stands equated with the security and the future of India. Which way will the nation turn?

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR) (Through The Billion Press)