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Centre’s language on healthcare sector needs worrisome

Amidst widespread hopes among public health policy experts and state governments that the Centre will make good on the headline ‘Healthcare takes centre stage, finally!’ in the Economic Survey 2020-21, released on Friday, it has been pointed out that some of the language the report employs is alarming.

It is worrisome that the Economic Survey repeats the phrase “healthcare policy must not become beholden to ‘saliency bias’,” according to Dr Ranga Reddy Burri, president of Infection Control Academy of India.

This phrase, he said, and the further explanation “where policy over-weights a recent phenomenon that may represent a six sigma event that may not repeat in an identical fashion in the future” is really alarming.

‘Six sigma event’ refers to an extremely rare happening, and saliency bias is the tendency to focus on prominent items.

“If the policy is going to be centred around this thinking and Budget allocations are made accordingly, then we are condemned to go for next healthcare emergency unprepared. We can predict with high certainty that next and further healthcare emergencies will be yet another zoonotic origin infection,” Dr Ranga Reddy said.

The section, ‘Covid-19 and India’s Health Care Policy’, in Chapter 5 of the Economic Survey, says “pandemics represent rare events.” This, Dr Ranga Reddy said, represents outdated thinking with the likes of the World Health Organisation, Centres for Disease Control and the United Nations, among others, “untiringly voicing that the next pandemic is around the corner and we need to gear up.”

Instead of attributing decisions to a ‘saliency bias’, India, Dr Ranga Reddy said, needs to prioritise policies and budgetary allocations around communicable diseases to tackle the current pandemic that is nowhere near the “beginning of its end.” India needs a robust pandemic preparedness plan oriented towards an approach that preempts and mitigates future health emergencies.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s public healthcare system that were major impediments in India’s Covid-19 containment strategy. Though private healthcare players stepped in to fill some gaps, the high cost profit oriented private sector is not adequate to deal when a crisis strikes, he said.

Dr Ranga Reddy hoped that the government’s healthcare spend that stayed at around 1 per cent of GDP for close to 15 years, will be increased to at least 2-3 per cent over the next three years. Substantial allocations are needed for adding more beds in the public sector, strengthening of primary and secondary health centres, improving healthcare worker to population ratios, improving surveillance and monitoring of infectious diseases, and investing in research and development of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, are required. – Deccan Chronicle

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