The underlying rationale behind the state’s focus on public health has been that a disease-free populace will help enrich the financial health of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also echoed this rationale though his flagship Swacch Bharat Abhiyan scheme, pledging that a clean India will eradicate disease from the country. It is, therefore, a matter of huge shame for the present dispensation that deaths from the swine flu pandemic in India has crossed 1,500 this week, with the virus infecting more than 27,000 people.
Rajasthan and Gujarat have reported the bulk of the cases and deaths, reporting more than 5,000 cases and 350 deaths till March 10. To place these numbers in context, on February 22, the death toll had just crossed 600. The actual number of cases, however, could be much higher because of poor access to health facilities and inadequate surveillance. The underlying narrative that has emerged from this entire episode is, however, the poor state of public health infrastructure and the lack of awareness in the most affected states.
Despite the option of adequate vaccination, most public health officials and practitioners have been found to be unaware of the level of preparedness required, besides a gross shortage of diagnostic kits and anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu. The most important way to control the virus, however, is through spreading awareness of preventive measures like wearing masks in public spaces and hand washing, among others.
The Centre and State governments have been woefully slow and inadequate in issuing preparedness alerts. Although some have attributed the outbreak to weather conditions, experts have been unable to unanimously agree on the correlation between the virus and weather conditions. To further compound matters, there is little clarity over when one should administer the vaccine available for swine flu. Three and half months on from the onset of the virus, the authorities have been unable to do anything concrete to alleviate the public’s concerns. Face masks have become commonplace in metro trains across the national capital.
The public have definitely pressed the panic button. To compound matters, the private health sector, meanwhile, continues to grow at 15 per cent a year. India spends about 1 per cent of its GDP on public health, compared to 3 per cent in China and 8.3 per cent in the United States.