India’s Preparedness Against Biological Threats

Recent Coronavirus outbreak poses a ‘very grave threat to the rest of the world’ – the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), reportedly said on February 11, 2020. Earlier, on January 28, 2020, it had changed the viruses’ risk-status from ‘moderate’ to ‘high’. As it creates a havoc in China, Coronavirus has recorded a limited spread in India, besides France, Canada, US, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka. This article will explore how prepared is India to tackle any similar biological threat to protect its citizens from a possible health catastrophe.

Let me begin by assessing pros and cons of the current initiatives of the Indian Government, both at the Center, as well as, in the States, in this regard.

The pros and cons:

Some of the ‘pros’, that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare promptly initiated are as follows:

  • Updated Travel advisory for travelers visiting China. 
  • Discharge policy for suspected or confirmed novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) cases.
  • Guidelines on Clinical management of Severe Acute Respiratory Illness (SARI) in suspect/confirmed 2019-nCoV cases.
  • Guidance on surveillance for human infection with 2019-nCoV.
  • Guidelines for ‘Infection Prevention and Control in Healthcare Facilities’.
  • Guidance for sample collection, packaging and transportation for 2019-nCov.

The above steps are as commendable as some other prompt initiatives of the Ministry to stop Coronavirus from entering the country, such as leveraging technology for both thermal and symptomatic screening, especially at the high-risk airports.

However, according to global experts – India, along with several other countries are still ill prepared to face biological threats of a magnitude that we are now witnessing in China. On the other hand, according to February 12, 2020 publication of The World Economic Forum, there about a dozen of countries in the world who are best prepared for meeting similar health emergencies.

Similar calamity was predicted two years back by W.H.O: 

Interestingly, a similar situation was predicted by none other than Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization and was reported on February 15, 2018. He then said, “We have a problem. A serious one. At any moment, a life-threatening global pandemic could spring up and wipe out a significant amount of human life on this planet. The death toll would be catastrophic. One disease could see as many as 100 million dead.”

“This is not some future nightmare scenario,” he added. “This is what happened exactly 100 years ago during the Spanish flu epidemic.” Again: “A devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time and kill millions of people because we are still not prepared. The world remains vulnerable.”Explaining the reason for the same, the Director General pinpointed: “The threat of a global pandemic comes from our apathy, from our staunch refusal to act to save ourselves — a refusal that finds its heart in our indifference and our greed.”

Now, when the world is grappling with the menace of Coronavirus – may not be at the predicted global scale yet, those comments haunt us again. It flags each country’s preparedness to deal with such pandemic, as and when it strikes, unannounced.

‘Countries best prepared for health emergencies’ – and India:

The February 12, 2020 publication of The World Economic Forum, as indicated above, highlights several important realities of this subject. Let me quote below just two of these, which, I reckon, are the most profound:

  • National health security is fundamentally weak around the world, and none is fully prepared to handle such an outbreak.
  • Global biological risks are in many cases growing faster than governments and science can keep up.

Acknowledging these facts, based on the Global Health Security Index, the most prepared ones for epidemics or pandemics of all types were listed among 195 countries surveyed. Measured on a scale from 0-100, the US ranks as the “most prepared” nation (scoring 83.5). Next comes UK (77.9), the Netherlands (75.6), Australia (75.5) and Canada (75.3) featuring behind it.

Thailand and South Korea are the only countries outside of the West that rank in this category. China, the most populated country in the world – which is also at the center of the Coronavirus outbreak – is in 51st place, scoring 48.2. And, India, the second most populated country ranks 57 with a score of 46.5. The obvious question that comes up: Why India ranks so low in the Global Health Security Index, among 195 countries?

Knowing the risk – not enough, building capability is a must:

The above details will give a sense of risk exposure to pandemic or epidemic, like Coronavirus, for a country. As the experts point out, just knowing the level of risk exposures, is far from enough. Each Government has a fundamental duty to build capabilities for protecting its people from the disastrous consequences of any possible biological threat, as and when it strikes. This will call for taking quantifiable financial and other measures to fill the existing gaps in the epidemic and pandemic preparedness, as captured in many studies. 

India’s budgetary allocation for health remains frugal:

It gets reflected even in the Union Budget 2020-21for the health care sector. Although, the total allocation for the sector was about 10 percent higher from the year ago. The increase seems negligible, considering consumer price index inflation was 7.5 percent in December 2019, as analyzed by the publication Down to Earth on February 02, 2020.

The report said, over 50 percent of the increase will go into offsetting inflation and we don’t seem to be anywhere near achieving the target of allocating 2.5 percent GDP to health by 2025, as envisaged by even the current government.

More relevant to this discussion, the allocation towards schemes dealing with communicable diseases, in general, has remained unchanged, especially when ‘Indians are getting sick mostly due to infections’, according to NSSO study, as reported on November 25, 2019.

India’s ability to contain epidemic is much less than China:

In a relative yardstick, China, reportedly, has built a better health care infrastructure than India to respond to various health related needs of the country’s population, including emergency situation, such as Coronavirus. Some of the key reasons, for example, are as follows:

  • While India shows one of the lowest government-spend on public health care, as a percentage of GDP, and the lowest per capita health spend, China spends 5.6 times more. 
  • When Indians met more than 62 percent of their health expenses from their personal savings, as ‘out-of-pocket expenses’, the same is 54 per cent in China.
  • India’s ability to quarantine a large number of infected people is much limited as compared to China.
  • Health service delivery system, especially for over 70 percent of the rural population of India, lack adequate scientific and skilled manpower, alongside necessary emergency equipment to provide care to a large number of patients at the same time, if epidemics strike.
  • Around 74 percent of health care professionals happen to be concentrated in urban areas, catering to just a third of Indian population, leaving rural areas under-served, according to a KPMG report. Alongside, the country is 81 percent short of specialists at rural community health centers (CHCs).

Conclusion:

The recent Coronavirus outbreak sends a strong signal to public health authorities, across the world, about the task-cut out for them to catch the early signs of possible epidemics. Many countries, especially India, have much ground to cover to ensure the right level of preparedness in countering such unannounced biological threats.

Capacity building for prevention, early detection, taking medical countermeasures – to contain the fast spread of the deadly organisms, and effective treatment response at the earliest, is the need of the hour. India also needs to develop capabilities for rapid development of drugs and vaccines in such a situation, fighting against time. Quoting the National Institute of Virology, some recent reports indicate that India’s scientific expertise and manpower aren’t enough, just yet, to deal with similar crises.

India’s public healthcare system and its delivery mechanism are still not robust enough either to keep in quarantine or in providing effective treatment and care for a large number of patients during any epidemic situation.

Against this perspective, I reckon, India is still grossly underprepared to face any biological threat, if it strikes with all its might. In that sense, the scary Coronavirus episode may be construed as yet another wake-up call to break the perceived slumber of the Government, if not apathy, as it were.

Thus, the question that surfaces: Shouldn’t the country, at least now, deploy enough resources to protect its citizens from any possible biological threats and aggression, just as it does, to provide safety, security and well-being of the population against any other external or internal threats?

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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