Dr Swadeep Srivastava, Founder & Mentor, @HEAL talks about the lessons that India cab learn from the current pandemic to build a robust healthcare infrastructure, better economy and overall a better country which takes care of all its citizens
Among a plethora of messages on COVID-19 was a request to God to reboot 2020 as it has a virus. But the reality is that nations across the globe will have to reboot their thoughts and creativity to tackle the deadly spread of the pandemic. One consolation is that a pandemic does not anchor itself for eternity; it will die. But before that, the ‘Corona Effect’ would have changed many aspects of our lives ranging from healthcare to social norms and leave behind a deep economic scar that would take years to heal.
COVID-19 has already sounded a warning bell – that despite our scientific claims and achievements, we are deeply unprepared to handle a pandemic. Hence, the first impact would be on healthcare. How do we insulate people from pandemics that come without a working manual on possible vaccines or drugs. It comes with a DIY (do it yourself) kit with absolutely no tools.
Lesson One- War like preparation required on healthcare front: Future healthcare systems should be war-prepared to battle pandemics whenever they breakout. We have near-complete knowledge on tackling major killers like heart ailments, cancer, lifestyle diseases, AIDS etc., but not a virus.
We also need to critically look at our healthcare ecosystem, especially the critical care segment. Hence, when a pandemic strikes, there should be an action plan that can be implemented in the shortest time frame – one that can balloon our healthcare infrastructure by removing bottlenecks and creating more critical care units and isolation centres without affecting non-pandemic critical care patients. This can be done by involving the private sector – both in the healthcare segment and hospitality sector which can become isolation units.
Lesson Two- We need to set ‘early warning systems’ in place in the society: Unlike in the past, viruses in the 21st century not only are ‘hyperactive’, but also leave their tales of devastation with ‘viral speed’. This is because of globalisation. Again, this is not new.
In his seminal book The Columbian Exchange, AB Alfred W Crosby Jr writes: “When the isolation of the New World was broken, when Columbus brought the two halves of the planet together, the American Indian met for the first time his most hideous enemy; not the white man nor his black servant, but the invisible killers which these men brought in their blood and breath.” Within a span of just 70 odd years, 80-100 million natives perished because of the disease brought by Europeans from across the seas: smallpox, influensa, diphtheria.
Today, it will not take 70 odd years, but just a few months to leave thousands dead due to an unknown virus. Hence, the second lesson is that we cannot stop globalisation with countries interconnected by air, but when an unknown virus breaks its barriers and jumps to humans, there should be warning bells early enough. In the case of COVID-19, that did not happen. Had there been an early warning system in place and had nations isolated themselves, the virus could have been contained in small pockets.
Lesson Three- Social distancing should become a norm, part of our regular habits: The third lesson for the future is social distancing. When a new virus comes knocking, there should be a self-imposed social distancing to break the chain. Even in the absence of a virus, it is better to observe social distancing as a part of life. Intimacy may be good and may reflect part of one’s culture, but distancing, without offending the other, is the best.
Lesson Four- Swachh Bharat should become a norm for 100 per cent Indians: India has to evolve a mechanism to maintain hygiene and cleanliness. For this, the urge should come from within. Parts of cities and towns are buried to the nose with garbage and filth. This has to end, so too our unbridled drive to pollute air and water in the name of economic progress and gains.
Lesson Five- A Guideline for at-risk people—elderly and patients with comorbidity- should be in place and in practice: Whenever there are signs of a pandemic, India should be able to isolate the elderly, patients with co-morbidity and children who are either underweight and malnourished. For this, what is of paramount importance is a robust health surveillance system at the state level and a constantly updated registry of population on a national scale. Unless the vulnerable sections are pre-identified through strong data collection, states and nations would not only invite trouble but also leave the doors wide open for the virus to enter.
Lesson Six- Need to promote original R&D and strengthen our Drug & Vaccination Development Programme further: Coronavirus has had a happy flip side too. It has shown the world the strength of our pharma segment. India could export life-saving drugs to major countries, including the developed world. But India cannot rest on its laurels. There is a need to further strengthen our Drug & Vaccine Development Programme by speed-tracking vaccine and drug development when a pandemic strikes.
Lesson Seven- Push our indigenous diagnostics manufacturing to make it sufficient for Indian Needs: COVID-19 has exposed India’s unpreparedness in having rapid testing kits and PPEs. Along with developing frontline vaccines, the lesson that COVID-19 has taught is the need to have millions of testing kits. This is because, when a pandemic strikes, the only way to check community spread is testing. Regarding PPEs, India should look inwards. Massive garment export units in Tirupur (Tamil Nadu), Karnataka and other places can become manufacturing units of PPEs and also eye exports.
Lesson Eight- Our Govt need to make appropriate provisions for supporting the BoP population in case of such calamities: A pandemic always hard-knocks and downs economies world over. COVID-19 is no exception. 2020 could be the worst year for the global economy in nearly a century.
The global economy is expected to contract by 3 per cent this year because of economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic — the steepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But in future, India should have a strong mechanism to take care of the people at the base of the pyramid who actually oil and run the wheels of the nation’s economy. Only they can put the economy back on track.
Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee and former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan recently penned a piece in The Indian Express saying: As it becomes clear that the lockdown will go on for quite a while, the biggest worry right now, by far, is that a huge number of people will be pushed into dire poverty or even starvation by the combination of the loss of their livelihoods and interruptions in the standard delivery mechanisms. That is a tragedy in itself and …we need to do what it takes to reassure people that the society does care and that their minimum well-being should be secure.
The bottomline is that India has to have a robust action plan when a pandemic strikes – a plan that is creative, disciplined and, above all, sensitive.