Is India's public health infrastructure ready to tackle the second COVID-19 wave? Here's what data says

Government hospitals in Maharashtra added just 672 ICU beds between April 2020 and January 2021

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Tuesday 06 April 2021
Is India's public healthcare sector ready to tackle the second COVID-19 wave?

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has raged into a second wave which has become more testing in April: More than 273,000 news cases were recorded April 19, 2021 and 1,620 deaths.

This more deadly phase has stressed out India’s health infrastructure and the improvements made in the last year. Scarcity of testing kits, vaccines, hospital beds, medical oxygen, etc have been reported from several states. 

How well did we utilise the time and our learning since the outbreak began. Here are some statistics:

The Government of India approved a Rs 15,000-crore ‘COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness Package’ April 22, 2020 to boost India’s public health infrastructure sector.

The states have used this to increase the number of oxygen-supported beds, intensive care unit (ICU) beds and ventilators.

Oxygen beds grew 152%

Till January 2021, the country added 94,880 oxygen-supported beds. In April last year, the country had just 62,458 beds with oxygen, according to data presented by Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Union minister of state for health and family welfare in the Rajya Sabha Feb 2, 2021.

Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu accounted for 16,000 and 17,000 of these additional beds, respectively.

These figures seem substantial in absolute numbers but not so much when we compare them to the COVID-19 burden of these states at present.

Maharashtra was the worst-hit during both the major surges of COVID-19 cases in the country. On April 5, 2021, the state had 55 per cent of the country’s 103,558 active cases.

It also accounted for over 46 per cent of the total 478 deaths on April 5, 2021.

Tamil Nadu had 21,958 active cases on April 5, 2021.

In the same period, the number of oxygen beds in Delhi and Tripura increased 51 and 52 times, respectively — the biggest jump in the country.

The capital now has 5,977 such beds in comparison to just 115 in April, 2020. Tripura had just 10 oxygen-supported beds in April last year and now has 506.

ICU beds grew 32%

India has 36,008 ICU beds at present compared to 27,360 in April 2020. Of these 8,648 additional beds, Maharashtra has been able to add merely 672 ICU beds — a growth of 14 per cent.

Delhi, on the other hand, added 1,861 ICU beds. The present total is six times that of last April levels.

A worrying signal

Even amid a second surge in cases, Haryana, Punjab, Puducherry, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Jharkhand have decreased the number of ICU beds in their states.

Haryana and Punjab, where cases are rising steadily, have reduced ICU beds by 79 and 70 per cent, respectively.  These states have also reduced the number of ventilators by 73 and 78 per cent, respectively.

The second wave, attributed to the new coronavirus strains in the country, could be deadlier, said Dr Randeep Guleria, director of AIIMS, Delhi.

Almost 80% more ventilators

India added 10,461 ventilators since April 2020.

While 26 states, including Maharashtra, have strengthened their critical care infrastructure by adding ventilators, the number has reduced in nine states, according to health ministry data presented in Rajya Sabha Feb 2, 2021.

India’s healthcare spending is abysmally low. The country ranks second-last among countries in its region in terms of public health spending as a share of its gross domestic product (GDP), according to the World Health Organization. With less than one per cent public health spending as a share of GDP, India lags behind Bhutan (2.5 per cent), Sri Lanka (1.6 per cent) and Nepal (1.1 per cent), showed the National Health Profile 2019.

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