Opportunities in the Covid Crisis
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

Every crisis comes with opportunities. The Covid-19 crisis presents the country with an unprecedented opportunity to have a hard look at the present state of the economy and think of strategies to strengthen indigenous R&D and manufacturing capabilities in different sectors. Covid19 will reshape the power equations in the world. China is already taking the high moral ground for having dealt with the crisis efficiently. It is trying to emerge as the hub of manufacturing of medical devices.

If India handles the crisis well and uses it for emerging stronger, it will have a greater role to play in the world post-Covid 19.

Several initiatives of far-reaching import have been announced by the government. More is probably in the pipeline. The Rs 1.7 lakh crore (Rs 1 trillion) relief package for the poorest sections of the society is timely and highly welcome, although it’s a moot point whether this is enough considering the scale of disruption and the impact it is having on daily wage earners. The government should do a quick impact analysis and consider whether more help is needed.

The government has also given some relief to the companies by deferring tax submission deadlines and lowering the penalty rates. This is the initial step which needs to be followed up with more.

Sector-wise relief packages need to be worked out so that the economy is not entirely disrupted. Several sectors, which provide jobs, have been hit. Undoubtedly, jobs will be lost at large-scale until the economic recovery takes place. Civil aviation, railways, transport, tourism, automobile, construction hospitality, et cetera are some examples. As a result, migrant labour has started moving to their homes. This is a potentially dangerous trend which must be reversed . The government, the corporate sector and civil society should make it easier for the workers to wear the impact of the lockdown.

Simple things, get them right

Before anything can be done, the government must immediately clear the confusion about who can and who cannot move on the roads during the curfew. The visuals of police harassing the workers who were doing their duty are not doing any good. The shortage of labour has hit supply chains. The police need to be sensitised to be rational and be considerate to those who are reaching the services at the doorstep of the people. If groceries, vegetables, and the supplies of essential goods dwindle, panic will be created amongst the people who are confined to their homes and are growing restless. The government should ensure that workers involved in E-commerce, online grocery shopping, supplies of pharmaceuticals and medicines or not harassed by the law enforcement agencies. Supplies cannot be ensured unless the couriers who take them to the warehouses and from the warehouses to homes are allowed to travel without being harassed by the police. Movement of trucks carrying fruits and vegetables and other items across interstate borders should not be impeded.

The problem can be easily tackled by working out an online system of issuing all India curfew passes based on simple documentation. The best way to handle the lockdown effectively is to keep the maximum number of people at home but supply them the essentials at their doorsteps. For that to happen, some movement on the roads is essential.Without losing more time, MHA and state governments should come out with guidelines and standard operating procedures in this regard. The Centre should set up a task force of central and state agencies along with the representatives of the essential goods industry to ensure that the movement of essential staff during the time of curfew is smooth and without harassment. Sector -wise relief packages need to be worked out so that the economy is not entirely disrupted. Resident welfare associations can play a very important role in sorting out the problems at the local level.

Opportunity

Covid19 crisis is an opportunity to rethink about rebuilding and reshaping the economy. The crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Indian economy due to its dependence on long supply chains, often originating in china. Even simple goods and raw materials were being sourced from China. In the last few decades, our manufacturing sector has been hollowed out due to dependence on cheaper imports. The crisis should be used to turn around the Manufacturing sector.

To begin with, the government can look to revive and strengthen the public health sector. According to reports a ₹ 15,000 crore fund to help the health sector has been set up. This fund should be used to enhance medical devices manufacturing capabilities. This is a hugely important sector for health security of the country. It also carries massive business potential. Testing kits, masks, hospital beds, disinfectants, ventilators and many other devices can be easily made in India and even exported. This is also an opportunity to increase spending on research and development in the health sector. The modern IT technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data analytics should be used. India has all the capabilities except that we do not have the right policies for indigenisation. Indigenisation of medical device manufacturing should be the priority for the government during the crisis.

Strengthening research and manufacturing of pharmaceuticals should be another priority. The government should devote funds for vaccine research, disease surveillance, and early warning systems. India is making a lot of pharmaceuticals but importing 60 to 70 percent of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs)from China. We used to have manufacturing facilities. Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd (IDPL) was a public sector undertaking which was closed down some years ago due to mismanagement. There is a need to revive API manufacturing in India. Some funds should be provided for this purpose.

The country is woefully short of skilled and trained manpower to deal with the public health crises which continue toafflict India with alarming frequency. We need more doctors, more nurses, more paramedics, more radiologists and more of almost every skill that is required in the health sector. This is the time to have a hard look as to why we have not been able to produce the necessary manpower. The cost of training is too high. Exorbitant capitation fee is charged by unscrupulous institutions, very often run by politicians. The Indian Medical Council, now suppressed by the amended Indian Medical Council Act, had corrupted the entire medical education sector in India. Hopefully, the amended Medical Council Act, passed by the Parliament last year, will address this situation. Care should be taken that the new board to be set up is not filled by old faces. We need entirely fresh thinking on medical education in India. Covid19 should help us do that.

India should pay attention to enhancing skilling, reskilling and training of the public health professionals. More hospitals and more public health institutions should be opened right up to the block level. Covid 19 crisis is the right time to rise above the vested interests and push for reforms in the public health sector. The spending on public health is only about 1.4 per cent of the GDP, which is below that of almost all the neighbours. This must be doubled.

We have talked a lot about telemedicine in India. Some progress has been made but it is not sufficient. The real deliverable should be when a patient can have a consultation with the physician online and take some advice. In the absence of effective telemedicine practices, our hospitals are overcrowded. It is difficult for an ordinary person to consult a doctor even for an ordinary illness. The government should use the opportunity provided by Covid 19 to set up telemedicine helplines so that initial medical advice is available to the ordinary people at affordable prices online quickly. The physicians in the neighbourhood should be empanelled and incentivised to provide consultations. The concept of Mohalla Clinic is a good one but a lot of content needs to be filled in it. Health is a concurrent subject. Cooperation between the Centre and the States is important.

The Covid 19 crisis is upon us and there is no getting away from it. India will surely come out of it. The government has been proactive. The public is supporting the leadership. However, the delicate and sensitive handling of the lockdown period is required. At the same time, there has to be a strategic approach to dealing with the crisis. The government should think hard about how the crisis can be turned into an opportunity for the country.
(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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