Overcoming the Pandemic: Some Suggestions
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

The country’s public health infrastructure is at a breaking point. Daily new cases have crossed the 400,000 mark and may increase manyfold in the coming days. The country has only approx. 75,000 ICUs whereas nearly every day, 75,000 ICU beds are needed as the wave strengthens.

The shortages of hospital beds and oxygen are widespread. Even if more hospitals are set up, there will be an acute shortage of nurses, doctors, paramedical staff, technicians et cetera. We need to figure out how to provide more healthcare professionals immediately.

Vaccination is the most potent tool to fight the coronavirus. We have opened vaccination to the entire adult population but do not have the required number of doses even though we are the largest producer of vaccines globally. Everything must be done on war footing to increase indigenous production, step up imports and provide universal access to the vaccine.

Society has been ravaged by the ferocity of the virus. It has caused severe socio-mental trauma. Children have been psychologically affected. Psychologists are warning of the imminent mental health pandemic. They must be listened to.

People have developed a feeling that they have been abandoned by the state. There is an urgent need for empathy and counselling. The country should mobilise its social and cultural resources to provide that healing touch.

All is not lost. Governments are doing their best but there is scope for better coordination and less bickering. Mutual help and support community groups have come up, instilling some hope. But they alone cannot suffice. They need massive help and encouragement from the governments. Without the participation of the community, the battle against the virus cannot be won.

One should not underestimate the severity of the problem and the long termimpact it may have on society. Healthcare workers, who are bearing the brunt of the ire of the relatives of the patients, must be protected. Healthcare staffs’ physical and psychological needs should also be taken care of.

Transparent communication is extremely essential. The government and its institutions should be seen in a leadership role. While there are a lot of dashboards, helplines and portals that have been set up, their services are inconsistent and uneven in quality. The government should set up robust helplines backed by sound technology and committed volunteers. For instance, there can be a nationwide portal providing the exact oxygen situation in the country, the availability of beds and medicine, access to the doctors through teleconsultation, et cetera.

Nearly 70 per cent of healthcare in the country is provided by the private sector. The government should incentivise the private sector to provide health care at affordable prices. For instance, help can be given to the private sector to set up oxygen plants in private hospitals.

The oxygen shortage should be dealt with at war footing. The experience of the Armed Forces in logistics should be utilised.

A few specific suggestions are:

  1. A national drive to mobilise human, physical and financial, resources should be launched immediately to deal with the crisis. The national mobilisation of human, physical and financial resources should be launched immediately to deal with the crisis.
  2. Volunteers should be found from the pool of retired officials. They can reach out to the community, help run Covid care centres, set up helplines, provide counselling and so. The government should issue proper orders.
  3. The Panchayati Raj Institutions should be marshalled to deal with Covid crisis in the villages. These institutions should be provided with the necessary technical advice and resources. They should be backed up by the government in different ways. Like the Asha workers, corps of ‘SehatMitras’ should be created to supplement the public health sector.
  4. NGOs should be mobilised on a large scale. We can learn from the example of Bangladesh where NGOs play a big role in providing health and education to the masses.
  5. About 150,000 fresh doctors, who have finished their MBBS and are presently preparing for their exams for a higher degree. This unused resource should be utilised for national duty. They should be asked to do Covid duty in return for ‘grace marks’ in their next professional exams. Such an incentive is already available for doctors who do rural area duties. Similarly, budding nurses can be incentivised to do Covid duty if they are given preference in jobs in government hospitals. Nearly 200,000 nurses will become available by this measure. These suggestions have been made by eminent doctors of the country. Timely and urgent action by the government can make available this vital human resource.
  6. The government should set up a national agency to manage oxygen shortages, taking on board issues of oxygen production, transportation, planning, distribution, et cetera. The best practices of supply chain management should be utilised for this purpose.
  7. The hospitals should be more empathetic to patients and their families. The patients and their families waiting in the car parks for beds and oxygen should be provided for counselling and whatever help is possible. Abandoning them on the roads is not only insensitive but dents public faith in the hospitals.
  8. Mental health issues should not be neglected. The government and the private sector should step up psychosocial care that is needed at this time and in future. Counselling should be provided urgently to those who have been affected seriously, like the orphaned children.
  9. For each state, they should be a corresponding 24x7 crisis management nodal team in the centre to improve coordination between the Centre and the states.
  10. International assistance that is coming into the country should be transparently distributed and accounted for. The basis of distribution should be shared with the public.
  11. The human dimension of the crisis is stark. No amount of statistics will satisfy people if they do not get proper and timely medical care. The government should be transparent, reassuring and informative at the same time. Its media handling should be sensitive and balanced. Living in denial will not help.

We as a country and society are in for a long haul. The health crisis can easily turn into a national security crisis. We need to improve governance, delivery and implementation. This crisis allows us to overhaul our health system. The opportunity should not be missed.

(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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