The catastrophic Covid 19 has proved to be a great leveller and has forced a reordering of the world order. Despite its much better healthcare facilities, the ‘First World’ has turned out to be a much bigger victim of what has been described as a ‘once in a century pandemic’ than the ‘Third World’. It will thus be tougher and take longer for the ‘first’ to get things back to normal than the ‘third’. This changing equation presents a unique opportunity for India, which is on the cusp of entering the Big League despite still being counted as part of the ‘Third World’. If it plays its cards well, India can cement its place as a major world power in the days ahead.
India has to strike a balance between reviving the economy and providing basic healthcare. If an article published in ORF is to be believed, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) has contracted by as much as 10·3 percent, and the economy is unlikely to bounce back to shape anytime soon. What it means is that existing resources will have to be stretched to the limits and new funds created to address the herculean health challenge in the days ahead.
As per the estimates of the Fifteenth Finance Commission, the Ministry of Health would need a whopping ₹5.38-lakh crore for providing primary healthcare to all its citizens between 2020 and 2025. It goes without saying that the vastly expanded requirements of immunisation, screening, testing and treatment of COVID-19 may result in an upward revision of the amount. The imperative of an almost parallel structure to treat non-COVID-19 conditions will see this amount growing many times over. Thanks to murmurs in the power corridor about a possible cut in the defence budget, there is a ray of hope in handling the upcoming menace to some extent. Along with healthcare services, India’s Health Management Information System (HMIS) itself was severely disrupted by the pandemic.
A study has estimated that India needs 2.07 million doctors by 2030 if it is to provide good, equitable healthcare to its population. Aware of this exigency, the Government of India is expanding medical seats, both in the public and private sectors, with an aim of filling doctor vacancies in the rural areas. According to the latest estimates, the number of MBBS seats has seen a quantum jump of 48 percent, up from 54,348 in 2014-15 to 80,312 in 2019-20. There has also been a 47-percent increase in the number of government medical colleges during the period between 2014 and 2019, compared to a significantly lower 33-percent increase in all medical colleges, both government and private, in the past five years, from 404 in 2014-15 to 539 in 2019, according to the article by ORF.
The monumental task is further exacerbated by the stiff resistance to the reforms the Modi government is introducing. Polarising and creating fissures among the people of different ideologies might win the government an election. However, the real game changer would be building consensus and implementing the policies that would take India to the Big League. The government has to find a way to accomplish this onerous task. Embroiled in the quagmire of multiple issues, the government must also address the hovering security threat posed by China. If the report of security experts is to be believed, India is in a relatively better position after capturing the strategic peaks. It remains to be seen how the Indian government capitalises on the US bill on Tibet.
The enormity of the challenges also offers enormous opportunities to revamp the standard operating procedure in every field. The troika of Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and Automation will offer a great deal to expedite the biggest healthcare challenge of the century. The government must find a way to accelerate the pace of research. For instance, using computers to communicate is not a new idea by any means, but creating a direct interface between technology and the human mind without the need for keyboards, mice, and monitors is a cutting-edge area of research that has significant applications for some patients.
Neurological diseases and trauma to the nervous system can take away some patients’ ability to speak, move, and interact meaningfully with people and their environments. The demand of medical professionals can be easily met by employing technology. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), backed by artificial intelligence, could restore those fundamental experiences to those who feared they had lost them forever.
These technologies are not just the panacea to the health challenges facing us, they also offer a much-needed solution in every field. As far as the security issue is concerned, keeping the ethical conundrum aside, the Chinese are pondering over inserting chips in the brains of their soldiers which will enhance their capability by leaps and bounds, if the reportage of WION TV is to be believed. The world community, including India, must find a deterrence for this menace.
If India has to punch above her weight in the upcoming decade, all these issues must be addressed swiftly despite being entangled in the constraints of democracy. Else, India must prepare to bear the brunt of Chinese hegemony.
Written By: Charan Singh