How Is the Indian Healthcare Sector Reacting to the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic? According to the health minister of Chhattisgarh, "the testing criteria for COVID-19 is too restrictive". The state has only one active testing centre

By Kunal Kishore Dhawan

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On March 15, 2020, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) held a meeting with national healthcare experts regarding the sharply rising cases of COVID-19 infections in the country. The latest update states that the union health ministry is only granting permission for testing for those who have a history of international travel or patients who have come in contact with them.

The death of a 76-year old man who had returned from Saudi Arabia shook the media and the healthcare professionals of the nation. His positive test results came only after his death after two hospitals had cleared him of suspicion. His death sheds light on how most healthcare facilities are ill-equipped to handle cases of novel coronavirus infection in India.

What prompted a rapid response from the healthcare industry in India?

According to the health minister of Chhattisgarh, "the testing criteria for COVID-19 is too restrictive". The state has only one active testing centre. With each state expanding its testing guidelines and restricting the criteria, it is evident that the country does not have enough COVID-19 testing kits at the moment.

The rising crises have prompted government doctors like Dr SP Kalantri, Kasturba Hospital, to express their concern. According to Dr Kalantri on Twitter, his team was unable to get a sample from a critical care patient with pneumonia tested for COVID-19. That was primarily because he did not fit the criteria of an international traveler or a person who came in contact with one!

How is the healthcare industry in India preparing for the battle?

With rising casualties, the death toll due to novel coronavirus infection has risen to 16 in India, as per data published by the MoHFW (at the time of publishing of this article). The number of positive and suspected cases of COVID-19 infection has been rising steadily and the latest recorded number is over 750 in the country.

Among all states, Maharashtra has been hit the hardest by Stage 1 and Stage 2 transmission of the virus. The prime minister has called for a "Janta curfew" for 21-days to curb the chances of infection, and to prevent the infection's entry to Stage 3 of transmission.

One of the biggest challenges frontline healthcare workers face in the country is the lack of infrastructure to treat patients infected by the novel coronavirus effectively and safely. By March 15, 42,000 individuals were already being closely monitored by healthcare authorities and the 51 Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had tested over 67,000 samples.

The Indian government has involved private players in its fight against COVID-19 infections. As the number of infected rises rapidly, the government has asked private medical facilities to earmark isolation rooms and segregate beds for housing and treating potential novel corona virus-infected people.

Around 50 private laboratories have received the green-signal for running COVID-19 tests. The government has further demanded the National Health Authority to firm up health packages for the underprivileged in case the disease enters Stage 3 of transmission.

What do the healthcare experts expect in the near future?

Statistics from countries plagued by the novel coronavirus infections show that after a brief threshold, the rates of infection almost doubles in two-day intervals. According to many healthcare experts, the measures are not enough and they leave the country open to the rising threat of COVID-19 infection.

As per the latest data, the World Health Organization (WHO) has remarked India's measures to be urgent and transparent. Moreover, India has one of the lowest testing rates compared to other countries. However, in the country, only those who show symptoms of the novel coronavirus infection are permitted to go ahead for testing.

Why does the Indian population deserve a stronger response from the healthcare industry?

Sadly, as the possibility of a spike in cases comes closer by the hour, India's healthcare system needs to prepare for the chaos that is about to come with it. Every 55,591 people in India have 1 public hospital and one bed per 1,844 people. At the same time, the availability of doctors in India is also 10 times below the recommended WHO numbers.

Another significant problem that healthcare in the country faces is the disparity between the quality and accessibility of healthcare within the country. The differences not only lie across different states but also the rural and urban centers in the nation.

With a population density as high as India's, even a simple measure like social distancing is next to impossible. Especially in rural communities, basic hygiene and social distancing are difficult to implement. These can play as major contributors to the spread of the infection rapidly. And the progression of COVID-19 infection into stage 3 of transmission.

According to healthcare experts and activists across the nation, the Indian healthcare infrastructure is not strong enough to handle a full-blown pandemic that waits upon us right now. The limited access to testing kits is increasing the panic among the public, who are suspecting hitherto undetected and asymptomatic cases around them.

Kunal Kishore Dhawan

Chief Executive Officer, Navia Life Care

Kunal Kishore Dhawan is the CEO of Navia Life Care, a healthcare startup based in Delhi. He is a former strategy and business development professional at Fresenius Kabi, a global pharmaceutical company, and with prior stints at PwC, GSK, Abbott Vascular and US-based VC firm Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse. Kunal is a Masters graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, and is responsible for strategy, business development and operations of the company, along with providing the medical perspective to the venture.

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