In a year ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, the shortcomings of the healthcare system in the country has been exposed. While the number of infectants have reduced considerably from the peak COVID period, India must reckon with the fact that over 1 crore people have contracted the virus in the country, with over 1.54 lakh deaths. While the recovery rate has improved to 96.36 per cent as on January 8, the battle is far from being won. As such, one of the key ministries to look out for during Budget 2021 is the health ministry that might get one of the highest allocations.
The country is getting ready for a mass vaccination drive, meaning that the government will have to set aside a substantial amount for the process. Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan had told reporters during the first vaccination dry run that the vaccine would be free across the country. While the exact price, and thereby the cost of the vaccination process, is yet to be made official, Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla had said that the company would give the Covishield vaccine to the government at a 'special' rate of around Rs 220 but would be higher for the private market. The Covishield vaccine is likely to be sold at the private market for Rs 1,000. The other candidate, Bharat Biotech's Covaxin is yet to ascertain the price.
Even if the vaccine is considered at a discounted rate for everyone at Rs 220, the cost per person would come to be around Rs 440 as the vaccine would need to be administered in two doses. To vaccinate 130 crore people, the government would need to spend Rs 57,200 crore. This is only the cost of the vaccine. The infrastructure and logistical costs would run into hundreds of crores. Even if 130 crore people do not opt for the vaccine, the costs would be a significant burden on the government.
The Centre's allocation to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for FY21 was around Rs 65,011 crore. This only indicates that the fund allocation to the ministry at the time of the pandemic must be significantly high as that's the first priority. India's expenditure on health has always been wanting resulting in below par facilities across the country, especially in remote locations.
"It is expected that the government would announce several measures for reinforcing the health infrastructure with the increasing needs imposed by the pandemic. Establishment of medical and health complexes would be a welcome move. Investment towards boosting the reach of tele-medicine in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities is expected to gain traction in the budget," said Dr Arun Singh, Global Chief Economist at Dun and Bradstreet.
"The Covid pandemic has underscored the importance of healthy living and maintaining our physical and mental health. To encourage individuals and families to proactively invest in preventive healthcare, wellness programmes for people suffering from lifestyle related ailments should be brought under health insurance coverage. This will also help reduce the burden on the curative healthcare infrastructure in the country, which would be better served to addressing communicable and life threatening disease and ailments," said Vandana Luthra, Founder and Co-chairperson, VLCC Group.
MENTAL HEALTH A PRIORITY TOO
Coronavirus pandemic has not only proven detrimental to lives and livelihoods across the world but has also taken a toll on mental health. Financial and health concerns, loss of loved ones as well as isolation for months due to the pandemic has taken a collective toll on the mental health of people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that the pandemic has disrupted mental health services in 93 per cent of the countries.
The government spends less than 0.05 per cent of the total health budget on mental health. In India, there is also a dearth of mental health professionals. The lack of mental health care facilities has only become more apparent in the wake of the pandemic.
Hence, understanding health only in the context of physical ailments is going to be a half-baked measure. To wholly tackle the country's health, the government must launch comprehensive measures and include mental health equally in the ambit.