India's healthcare system on brink of collapse again as it hits five million Covid-19 cases

India’s public healthcare system is one of the most underfunded and understaffed in the world, with just £1.50 spent per citizen

India's public hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen after recording one million new cases in just 11 days
India's public hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen after recording one million new cases in just 11 days Credit: T. Narayan/Bloomberg

India has become the second country after the United States to reach the grim milestone of five million Covid-19 cases, as its chronically underfunded public healthcare system again threatens to run out of both beds and oxygen.

Its latest million infections were registered in just 11 days, the world’s fastest growing epidemic, while yesterday saw 1,275 deaths, a new daily record.

During the early days of its epidemic, Covid-19 positive Indians struggled to find hospital beds, particularly in its densely-populated cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.

India’s public healthcare system is one of the most underfunded and understaffed in the world, with just £1.50 spent per citizen.

After public outcry the Indian Government provided more hospital beds by converting large buildings - like ashrams - and instructed private hospitals to admit more Covid-19 patients.

A draconian two-month nationwide lockdown from March also gave hospitals more time to prepare by slowing the spread of the virus but inadvertently caused a humanitarian crisis, pushing 400 million Indians into further poverty.

From June, India relaxed restrictions and cases have since soared, with the number of new daily infections regularly exceeding 90,000 in September and hospitals have again become overwhelmed.

Unlike in March, when the outbreak was centred in India’s cities, two-thirds of new infections are now being reported in its vulnerable rural hinterland where only 20 per cent of doctors and 37 per cent of public hospital beds are situated.

The number of available ICU beds in Mumbai, the state capital of India’s worst-affected state of Maharashtra, has fallen by 22 per cent since August 15 and only six per cent of ventilators remain free.

With the total number of Covid-19 cases nationwide expected to reach seven million by October, the city’s authorities are desperately trying to convert 27 private nursing homes to meet patient demand.

Women queueing for food aid - India cannot afford to enter into a second lockdown like Israel Credit: Cheena Kapoor

In the eastern state of Odisha, doctors have been asked by the state government to stop referring patients to ICUs in the state capital of Bhubaneswar because there are no beds available.

The state government in Rajasthan and the authorities in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir have also both requested emergency oxygen supplies.

Decades of under-investment by the Indian authorities in Jammu and Kashmir means the region only has 215 ventilators for its population of 13 million.

Six healthcare professionals in Mumbai and Noida, a satellite city adjacent to New Delhi, are reportedly the first Indians to become re-infected with Covid-19.

India already suffered from a shortage of 600,000 doctors and two million nurses and this has been amplified by more than 2,000 healthcare professionals contracting the virus by mid-July.

These staff shortages have severely reduced the quality of care for Covid-19 patients across India and this is only expected to worsen, as more doctors and nurses contract the virus.

There is some good news for India in that its overall Covid-19 fatality rate is lower than that of other badly-hit countries, like the United States, because of its young population.

However, doctors across the country say deaths from the virus are being underreported and instead attributed to other diseases, to avoid increasing public panic.

India is extremely unlikely to enter into a second lockdown, like Israel, as it lurches towards its predicted February 2021 peak.

Its economy contracted by a record 23.9 percent in the three months until June end and approximately one quarter of Indians found themselves unemployed.  

Instead, the Indian Government has announced plans to fast-track a Covid-19 vaccine for its elderly and front-line healthcare workers by early 2021.

“Coronavirus is an unprecedented challenge for us. But we are fighting against it in a well-planned manner under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the entire world has recognised our efforts,” said Amit Shah, the under-fire Indian Minister of Home Affairs.

Mr Shah urged Indians to follow precautions, such as adhering to social distancing and wearing masks, until a vaccine is available.

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security