New Delhi: External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar agreed that India’s health infrastructure “stands exposed” as the country is in the midst of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but blamed previous governments for the state of public health in the country.
Speaking at an online session with India Inc CEO Manoj Ladwa in London, he said, ” The healthcare system stands exposed. It is very clear that for 75 years, we have under-invested in health.”
Continuing further, he said, “In fact, it is that realisation which is why the prime minister was pushing for Ayushman Bharat. We had reached a stage where the prime minister genuinely believed that we cannot leave our people to the vagaries of the private practitioners, however good they may be.”
Ayushman Bharat is an insurance system whereby beneficiaries can get treatments up to a specified amount at private hospitals.
“There has to be a strong governmental system…health is a basic right. But in a crisis today, people don’t want policy explanations. They want to see practical answers on the ground,” he said.
If indeed previous governments have neglected health, there is no evidence that the Modi government has reversed this trend. Commenting on the allocation for health in the budget in February 2021, the health economist Dipa Sinha wrote:
“Overall, the health budget… has increased from Rs 67,484 crore (BE 2020-2021) to Rs 73,931.77 (2021-2022). While this is an increase of about 10%, the allocation for this year is in fact less than the revised estimates of 2020-2021: Rs 85,089 crore. So, in effect, the plan is to spend even less than what is being spent in the current year – even as many have pointed out that the Union budget for health needed to be doubled this year, then increased consistently over the next 3-4 years, for us to meet our goals for public expenditure on health.”
Stating that he was not indulging in a blame game, Jaishankar said that the reality was that everyone let their guard down and not just the government. “There were repeated advisories going out and public health teams sent out. There was a move to ramp up oxygen production. The reality unfortunately was, as the numbers came down there was an amount of public confidence. This is genuinely not a blame game, but I don’t think anyone in the country can say we kept our guard up all the time.”
Asked about the mass gatherings and political rallies which took place as the second wave of COVID-19 infections swept across the country, Jaishankar said, “With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say we shouldn’t have allowed gatherings of any kind… We are a deeply democratic and political country and in a democracy, you can’t not have elections. Elections are sacrosanct.” He said that if the government had moved to cancel the elections, it would have been attacked for doing that.
In fact, critics of the government’s handling of the crisis have not faulted the holding of the recent elections per se so much as their extended schedule and free-for-all campaigning which was totally unmindful of the risks posed by the virus.
Though unprompted, the minister attempted to defend the holding of the Kumbh Mela by comparing the event – which 90 lakh people attended with the government’s active encouragement – with the farmers’ protest near Delhi, which was much smaller and which the government had actively opposed. “It can’t be that religious crowds are a problem but protest crowds are fine. At the end of the day, a crowd is a crowd is a crowd.”
While saying he was happy to be part of a society where argumentation over policies took place, Jaishankar suggested now was not the time for the government’s critics to fault its handling as the country was facing an “existential” crisis:
“We are a political, a deeply political society and I think it’s a good thing, you know, I mean that is what keeps our civil society going – that the argumentation is something we all draw strength and ideas from. And I would never shy away from it. I would never, you know, tell anybody that it’s not your place to argue with me. I don’t think we are that kind of society and people. But I think there are times when we can discuss that to our hearts content but there are times when we need to pull up our socks and say, look there’s a crisis which is which is almost in a sense existential for the people who are affected by this, this is a time when let’s sort of put the blame game aside.”
Jaishankar described the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as an “all consuming” challenge posed by a virulent strain of coronavirus and welcomed the enormous goodwill from countries around the world as a sense of solidarity in diplomacy.
Jaishankar, who is in the UK on a four-day visit to participate in the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Meeting as a guest minister, admitted that India’s health system “stands exposed” but that there is a focussed plan to ramp up the vaccination programme and address the country’s needs beyond the immediacy of the pandemic.
“We feel in India at a moment of great travail a sense that the world is with us,” he said, during a live virtual event entitled ‘Does India have a plan? From survival to revival’ as part of the Global Dialogue Series organised by UK-based media house India Inc Group and the Indian High Commission in London.
“We will get through this. But there is a larger lesson out of all of this… There is a sense of solidarity. I feel it here in London from the G7 because almost all the countries have been through exactly what we are going through. They feel for you.”
(With PTI inputs)