In the past 16 months, India experienced a devastating pandemic, the type witnessed once in a hundred years. Compared to the influenza pandemic of 1918 that is said to have claimed over 20 million lives, the Covid-19 has been less lethal but equally overwhelming in the comprehensive manner in which it has disrupted lives world over.
India with the world’s second highest number of caseloads and deaths in the world, has lived through two waves of the pandemic – the first from May- September, 2020 and the second from March -May, 2021. The impact has been socially and economically distressing. Lives have been lost, incomes fallen, hunger and unemployment increased and people traumatized and stunned.
Prior to the pandemic, India’s health system was already broken and fragmented due to political neglect and persistent underfunding and in need of a radical overhaul. A few months of the pandemic has stretched it beyond its capabilities, exposing the fault lines. Yet, fighting against odds, millions of health care givers and frontline workers risked their lives in reaching out to people – testing, tracing, running quarantine and isolation centers, hospitalization and providing treatment and finally attending to cremations.
Yet, many feel India could have done better. Public Policy, be it in formulating policy by the Union government or its implementation by state governments, response was often found short of expectations with several avoidable missteps. Be it in the area of research and surveillance, testing, treatment or preventive strategies such as behavior change and vaccination or even extending social safety nets to shelter the vulnerable, on each and every one of these parameters, policy design and implementation could have been more thoroughly thought through.
What happened? What went wrong? Could better policy and its implementation have saved lives and reduced much of the trauma and suffering we experienced? Who is at fault – people, political leadership, judiciary, media or the executive? The central government or the states? Or is it that whatever happened was inevitable and a part of handling pandemics?
K SUJATHA RAO
K Sujatha Rao is former Union Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. Of her 36 years service as a civil servant, she spent 20 years in the health sector at the state and federal levels.
She represented India in the Boards of the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM); WHO and UNAIDS. She was a member of the 6 Member Global Advisory Panel of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Founding member of the Public Health Foundation of India; Member of the Advisory Board of the Ministerial Leadership Program of the Harvard School of Public Health, Member of the High Level Panel on Global Risk Framework of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, Trustee of Population Council, USA, Board Member of AIIMS, Raipur and the BSNL.
Currently, Ms. Rao is member of the NHSRC, GOI and Independent Director in several organizations. A MA from Delhi University, a MPA from Harvard University, USA 1991-92, she was a Takemi Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health 2001-2002 and Gro Harlem Brundtland Senior Leadership Fellow at HSPH in 2012. She is author of the book entitled DO We Care? India’s Health System – published by Oxford University Press.