The Union Budget 2021 that is set to be announced on February 1, comes amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed over 20 lakh lives globally and caused over 1.5 lakh fatalities in India. The pandemic disrupted millions of lives, a new normal continues to take shape and most importantly, the crisis highlighted the need for governments to make healthcare a priority. In our country, it is vital that the sector gets sufficient attention to add infrastructure and also weave in much more resilience into the entire ecosystem.
India's spending on healthcare is the lowest among BRICS and OECD nations - this despite an allocation of Rs. 69,000 crores towards the sector in Budget 2020-21. In fact, public spending on healthcare is an area that needs immediate attention and course correction - India's National Health Profile 2019 pointed out that the country only spends 1.28 per cent of its GDP on healthcare - the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that countries spend 4-5 per cent of their GDP on health to achieve universal healthcare.
As the largest democracy in the world with over 65 per cent of our population under the age of 35 years, we must think about whether we will continue to see healthcare as a cost or will we approach it as an investment. The government has said it aims to increase healthcare spending to 2.5 per cent of the GDP by 2025 and based on the developments of the last 12-18 months, this would be the bare minimum.
An important aspect to note is that there must be a much greater and in-depth understanding of the private sector that currently addresses more than 70 per cent of the country's medical needs. So, among the top aspects that merit change is that the cost of medical equipment is reduced and further, innovative and affordable solutions are encouraged, which comprises of nurturing healthcare start-ups. This would not only ensure that locally produced goods are given priority, but also ensure India's dependence on foreign imports is gradually reduced.
Another important aspect that the pandemic has showcased is the need for digital health to be at the centre of any healthcare sector policy going forward. Digital healthcare not only makes care accessible but also ensures it reaches all. It is also important to acknowledge that despite the disruptions and chaos caused by the pandemic, the healthcare sector was one of the few not to resort to pay cuts or layoffs.
Healthcare infrastructure is an integral element of any nation's economy - healthy citizens are the bedrock of an economy. A healthy population means productive labour, leading to greater economic output. At a time when the world has been ravaged by a virus of extraordinary proportions, such investment ought to be accorded high national priority.
The sector is hopeful that the upcoming budget will introduce a health infrastructure technology upgradation fund and there will incentives to create new infrastructure including provision of land to set up hospitals, a 15-year tax holiday for new infrastructure creation, import duty relief for life-saving equipment, and so on. In succinct, increased budgetary allocation for healthcare, ease of GST regulations, and a commitment by citizens to invest in insurance will position India's healthcare sector to take a giant step forward.
A big learning for humanity has been to make health a priority and also that collective effort will define the new world order. Private healthcare stands with India and into the future too, and we must look at innovations to nurture strong PPPs. In conclusion, as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and preparedness is undoubtedly the key to toughening up.
(The author is President, NATHEALTH, and Executive Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals.)