Covid-19 in India: How poor health infrastructure and govt apathy failed citizens

Yuvraj Sakhare

A few weeks ago, India was affected badly by a huge second coronavirus wave as the number of fatalities crossed 4,500 in a single day on 19 May. Even though the situation has been improving, India still is the second worst-hit country in the world in terms of caseload. The country has administered over 212 million doses of Covid vaccines so far and aims to inoculate the whole of the adult population by the end of 2021. 

The government’s ambitious vaccination drive, however, has been dampened as some states are experiencing a shortage of vaccines. The country’s Supreme Court has underlined that the government’s vaccination strategy is “prima facie arbitrary and irrational”. It is pertinent to note here that India’s federal government had decided to leave the import of COVID-19 vaccines to different state authorities, a decision that may have slowed the acquisitions of shots. The federal government also came under heavy criticism for making online vaccine registration mandatory for those aged between 18 and 45. The Supreme Court recently pointed out that requiring people to register on a mobile application would hamper vaccination efforts in rural areas, where access to the internet is unreliable.

The federal government’s wilful negligence 

After the first wave of Coronavirus, the negligence on the part of the government led to citizens letting their guard down. In early March, India's health minister prematurely declared that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. Even before that, in January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India as one of the countries that had successfully controlled coronavirus. Despite the soaring number of Covid-19 cases in late April, Prime Minister Modi continued to hold huge election rallies, ignoring the doctors’ and policy makers’ plea to stop campaigning. At the time when India was witnessing over 200,000 coronavirus cases a day, the Prime Minister was applauding large election gatherings. The government led by Prime Minister Modi’s party also allowed millions of devout Hindus to gather in the northern state of Uttarakhand for a month-long religious festival. Epidemiologists alerted that the religious festival created an ideal environment for the virus to spread rapidly. 

India's tattered healthcare system

As election rallies and religious gatherings went without restrictions, it put immense pressure on India’s tattered healthcare system. This led to chaos at hospitals compounded by a shortage of oxygen cylinders, ventilators, and hospital beds. Stories about hospitals packed beyond capacity, and patients dying for lack of oxygen started circulating on social media. India’s poor healthcare infrastructure is a result of years of government apathy. In May 2020, the $260 billion stimulus package for health announced by the Modi government amounted to just 0.008% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The government’s dislocated priorities are clear from the fact that India ranks 179th out 189 when it comes to the prioritization of healthcare in the government budget. While OECD countries spend an average of 8.8% of GDP on healthcare, India spends just 3.6% of its GDP. When it comes to healthcare, India, the world’s sixth-largest economy, spends as much as donor-dependent countries like Sierra Leone on a per capita basis. 

What is clear is that India needs a complete overhaul of its healthcare system. The government needs to substantially increase the spending on public health. To avoid another crisis in the future, sustained investment in health research is essential. India’s healthcare system is dominated by the private sector and the government is going ahead with its plan to create more private medical care centers. The over-reliance on the privatized healthcare system, however, puts a burden on the poor. Enhancing the role of government in healthcare service delivery and building a basic primary healthcare network is the only way to go. 

About the author


Yuvraj Sakhare is editor of the Bulletin Blog. Read more about him here.

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~