(Photo credit: Ganesh Dhamodkar, via Wikimedia Commons)
Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world.
Dealing with Covid-19 can be stressful. A few days ago, this columnist was tested positive for Covid. It was scary at first. The mind plays up your fears and dwells on the extremes. What will happen if I get hospitalized? Will my family be safe? How will we cope if everyone gets it? Luckily for me, the symptoms were mild and I recovered quickly.
Growing up, a visit to the doctor meant travelling a few kilometers by bus or sometimes in an auto rickshaw, waiting in line for a token and then getting a few minutes of facetime with the general physician for a quick diagnosis. Hospital visits were rare and only for serious ailments. Fortunately, I’ve never had to be hospitalized as a child.
Cooped up in my room the past few days, as I learnt more and more about the pandemic, I started panicking. I quickly needed to talk to a doctor. But going to a hospital meant exposing others to the virus. So I quickly Googled Covid care packages at home and found one to my liking. It was being run by a large hospital chain. I called the number they’d advertised and was promptly guided to download their app.
A co-ordinator sent me a link on WhatsApp to make a payment for the package. I paid in a few seconds using a UPI app. From then on, every day the coordinator would call me and check on my vitals. Is the blood oxygen level okay? Do you have breathing difficulties? What’s your temperature like? Every alternate day, a doctor would ping me on the app and I’d get to consult with him. The prescriptions and health records were stored on the app. I could place an order for medicines on WhatsApp and it would be door delivered. My worries faded as symptoms started getting better. And I’m on the road to recovery.
My experience has been better than most others because of my privilege. My symptoms were mild. I can easily Google relevant information. I can stay in touch with others on social media. I can afford to book a telemedicine package. I can have a digital thermometer and a pulse oximeter delivered home. I can book a Covid test from private labs at Rs 1500 a pop and they’d take swabs at my doorstep. I had the space to isolate myself. Freshworks, the company I work for, has a generous support system for its employees.
But several others with Covid have been through the toughest days of their life. The second wave of Covid has been devastating. Access to hospital beds, lack of oxygen, and even the ability to consult a doctor when required was missing. India has one of the most complex healthcare systems in the world. It is free for most parts and is run on tax money. Public and private insurance schemes cover a large section of the population. However, the pandemic has put pressure on the system that is clearly under equipped to handle a surge of this magnitude. Volunteer groups and several disparate attempts have been able to bring some solace to people going through this crisis. But that’s neither sustainable nor the right way to do it.
One of the ways to help deal with challenges is for the state to fully embrace telemedicine and integrate it deeply with the public healthcare system. Some programmes have been tried in the past under the Digital India initiative. The national digital health initiative is also beginning to kick into action. But a quick look at the statistics will tell you that we need to make haste if a country of more than a billion people and severe shortage of healthcare professionals is to be better equipped to deal with problems in the future. If we learn anything from this pandemic, it should be that India’s healthcare system needs a radical overhaul with digital technologies, empathetic people and processes at its core.