Obscured in the fast unfolding news of dozens of deaths of children at a Gorakhpur hospital due to unavailability of oxygen is a deeper malaise that points to the downright failure of the Indian healthcare system.
Last year, denied an ambulance, the picture of a man carrying on his head the dead body of his wife in a Odisha village as his daughter walked by his side is hard to forget.
A year before in 2015, botched up sterilization procedures that killed 13 women in Chhattisgarh drew international flak. These stories of agony do not send alarming signals; now they flag outrage and despondency. In serious question is the government’s will to pull out the deplorable healthcare system from the deep abyss. Growth of a country that derides the healthcare needs of its people is an example of a myopic vision.
Political affiliations apart, India’s economic growth agenda ambitiously revolves around infrastructure like building roads and bridges, stimulating manufacturing or overhauling the financial and taxation systems.
Historically, healthcare, as part of social development objectives, has remained a low priority. At best, the budgetary allocations for healthcare sector have stayed in a close band of 2 percent to 4 percent of the GDP.
In the opinion of one healthcare expert, a part of the reason for the apathy is that positive healthcare outcomes is subtle and measurable over a longer time. Until then, the change is in small pockets and not clearly noticeable. It is deceptively buried under the veneer of emerging corporate districts in cities replete with glistening glass and steel buildings, or, put simply, the modern figures of economic prosperity.
But that approach can throw up challenges in the long term. Studies by health experts draw an inseparable link between economic performance and sound health parameters. A 2004 article in the OECD Observer shows how health performance and economic performances are closely interlinked.
While wealthier countries have healthier populations for a start, the study says, it is a basic truth that poverty, mainly through infant malnourishment and mortality, adversely affects life expectancy.
Over an hour-long discussion on CNBC TV18 on Sunday evening (August 13) titled “What’s Ailing India,” health experts shared concerns on the awful state of the government-run hospitals. K Srinath Reddy, a well-known authority on health issues and President at the non-profit Public Health Foundation of India said the Gorakhpur tragedy manifests deep-rooted issues at multiple levels. From faulty procurement systems, lack of technical and medical audits that can guarantee transparency, improper use of fund to inadequate use of digital technology, the list is long.
Another expert, a retired senior bureaucrat in the health ministry, suggested a closer scrutiny of the medical education system. On the one hand, while private colleges have sprouted in thousands, government-owned medical colleges have been woefully short in meeting the demands.
The disparity between cities and rural centers is created at this fundamental point. For students who pay lakhs of rupees for medical education, serving in rural areas do not make economic sense, not to speak of the mediocrity that is bred in those colleges.
The task to fix the broken healthcare system in India needs a determined political intervention. But that is amiss unfortunately. The buzz around the Gorakhpur health crisis will taper in a few days until news of a health disaster is back in the media.(The writer is Chief Editor News, CNBC-TV18)