WHY WE SHOULD NOT GO BACK TO THE NORMAL

It was 10 am yesterday when I got a series of messages from my co-worker, who frantically shared the sad news of his aunt passing away due to Coronavirus. This was followed by a worrisome conversation with my mother at lunch who discussed the problems that came with digital divide and the struggles of her underprivileged students because of exacerbating inequalities in our family-owned schools.  The day passed by gloomily and I kept struggling to process the unfortunate incidents that had recently transpired. Just when I thought the nightmare was over, I got a call at midnight from my best friend that shook me to the core. “I feel helpless. We have oxygen left for barely a few hours and my grandfather’s oxygen levels have been dropping by the minute”, she gasped, stranded in a dingy hospital in the middle of the night in the streets of Faridabad, NCR. It felt like everyone was just on a boat, hoping to stay alive, in this sea of uncertainties. The rollercoaster of emotions I went through that day and the weeks before that, made me wonder – Is there any way to try and erase the traumatic memories of the pandemic from our psyche and cling on to a ray of hope amidst everything?

The history of the Indian economy has long proven that some of the biggest achievements of Independent India, emerged from the country being trapped in clutches of some of the biggest problems. At the time of its independence, India was an agricultural dependent economy. Yet, the state of Indian agricultural sector was dismal. From the lack of investment, a dearth of technology to low yield per acre, many teething problems plagued the industry. This necessitated the immediate launch of the Green Revolution in 1965 with the introduction of High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds in the scene of the crumbling Indian agriculture. With an absence of modern technology and incessant severe famines during the British Raj, who had only promoted cash crops instead of food crops, the pivotal focus became to never depend on any other country for food sufficiency. The initiatives were also coupled with efficient irrigation practices and the correct use of fertilizers to spike the crop yields per acre and productivity, that helped boost income levels of farmers who not only started surviving, but also prospering. 

Another truly epoch-making event that followed was back in 1970, when the White Revolution indeed brought ‘Anand’ to the Indian farmers. India wasn’t always self-reliant when it came to milk production, having had to import milk powder and other dairy products from external economies. However, from a chronic milk deficit country in 1950-51, with a production of 19 Million Ton per year (MMT), this ‘ship to mouth’ approach changed with Operation Flood, the world’s largest dairy development programme, which was started to end the exploitation of livestock farmers by middlemen. Implemented in three different phases, with an ambitious target to create a nationwide milk grid, the results began to show in 1990 when India was flooded with milk at a whooping rate of 50 million tonnes of milk being produced per year. The laser-sharp focus on cooperative societies not only made the farmers autonomous but also broke the shackles of gender, caste, religion, and community that impaired the sector.

Interestingly, a common theme between both the revolutions, that can be applied to the current context of the pandemic in the country, is the emphasis on – “self-sufficiency” and amelioration of the external dependencies that bring with them, unexpected risks. The current pandemic situation brings to the fore the power of the process of ‘long-term potentiation’ – memories that undergo this process tend to get embedded in our brains for a long time and are imprinted at a non-conscious level. With the plethora of depressing stories and reports of people gasping for breath because of the unavailability of oxygen, the most elementary necessity of life, in order to act on this long-term potentiation effect, we either have the sluggish choice of adapting ourselves to the ‘new normal’ and longing for the old days to return, or the path of applying the learnings from the achievements of the past and voicing our concerns for an immediate health revolution in the economy. I make a case for the latter.

Certain short-run and long-run policy prescriptions could be implemented to bring about an improvement in the dire situation of health in the economy. What can be done in the short-run to address various health challenges? A two-fold approach is essential. First, in an attempt to minimise the exclusion errors, it is necessary to improve equality in vaccination coverage by abating the logistical issues that come with the Co-Win App, along with capacity expansion by speeding up the inoculation process in India’s poorer and rural districts through corporate tax-refunds to potential private healthcare providers partnering with the government. Secondly, immediate measures must aim at providing the requisite social safety net to the poor and the vulnerable by accelerating the ration support under PDS and transferring cash to the bank accounts of the poor, to compensate for their significant loss in incomes.   

In the long-run, an early preparation of the country’s health care system and affiliated industries with regard to the anticipated ‘Long Covid’ symptoms might go a long way. The answer lies in exploiting the power of the 2Ps – Public health expenditure and PPPs. Considering that India’s mandate was to be a welfare state, it is shameful that still, only around a pitiful 1.26 % of its GDP accounts towards health expenditure. The country should learn from the success story of Bhutan, a least developed nation, which has done a commendable job in controlling the pandemic with only 983 positive cases and merely 1 death, due to its sheer emphasis on raising health expenditures to an impressive 3.06% of GDP as on Jan’2021. Additionally, there is an acute need to focus upon equitable and affordable health-care system by leveraging PPPs in the healthcare that offer a solution for governments to consider, to leverage private sector financing, expertise, and capacity to respond to a range of tele-medicine and health infrastructure, and healthcare access/service and delivery needs. They also offer the opportunity for governments to transition into a role as provider of healthcare services—setting policy and overseeing, regulating, and shaping care delivery for populations, rather than delivering the care themselves.

The pandemic, and the stress it has put on our fragile health system, is a wake-up call for the nation. It has already delivered a hard lesson that no country is safe from its impact and the price for ignorance could be huge. It’s time for the nation to apply the lessons from its unexpected achievements in the past to ignite a health revolution for a bright future. It’s time for the nation to sit back and re-evaluate what is lost and what could have been saved. It’s time for the nation to not settle but instead, move on to a better normal.

Himanshi Goel
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Himanshi Goel is pursuing Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She has a keen interest in the socio-economic policy space and gender issues.

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