The Covid pandemic has amply illustrated the health sector’s direct and indirect intersectoral repercussions, as well as its disruptive force. As a result, its presence in the Economic Survey was unsurprising.
Given the pandemic’s lessons, it was logical to anticipate a “health-focused” budget. That was not going to happen. The main focus of the budget is on raising capital spending for the PM Gati Shakti scheme, which aims to improve economic infrastructure. TV debates centered on the GDP as if a 7.7% or 8.2% recovery means anything to the millions of people who have been impoverished by pandemic-related income losses, hunger, sickness, and trauma.
The gap between rich and poor has grown. People have spent an estimated Rs 70,000 crore out of pocket for medical services that the government should have given in this short time. Spending during low incomes led millions of people into poverty, and hunger has arisen as a major concern, with India ranking low on the malnutrition and hunger index. Children have lost two years of learning, or three years in real terms, because they have forgotten what they learned the last time they attended school.
The budget allotment for the post-Covid year is a regal Rs 83,000 crore, up 16.4% over the previous year’s Rs 71,268 crore. From Rs 36,576 crore to Rs 37,000 crore, the budget for the flagship National Health Mission, which funds all health projects in collaboration with states, has been boosted by 7.4%. All disease control and reproductive and child health programs, including immunizations — which deal with inexpensive ailments to cure yet life and death for large groups of the poor — are implemented through the NHM. Covid resulted in a more than 30% coverage gap across all of these programs, raising concerns about drug-resistant HIV and tuberculosis and leaving thousands of youngsters unprotected from vaccine-preventable infections.
Instead, digitalization is the obsession. How might a patient in the intensive care unit benefit from a digitized health record? Strong policies that increase the availability of doctors and nurses, as well as access to drugs and diagnostics, are needed to improve India’s health system.
The FM also announced the creation of 23 telehealth centers of excellence for mental health. Why was there a specific reference in the address when the financial provision for mental health was only increased slightly — from Rs 597 crore to Rs 610 crore? Mental health affects around 6% to 8% of the population. It is a major ignored epidemic, costing the economy $1.03 trillion and resulting in 2,443 disability-adjusted life years per 1 lakh people, equal to cardiovascular diseases and more than stroke or COPD.
This year’s health budget was necessary to establish the necessary resilience to never again experience the disruptions we’ve seen. Regrettably, it lacked both a vision and a strategy for closing the gaping holes in the healthcare system. Despite all the information and data, we mourn the low health budgets, which have remained stagnant at around 1.5 percent of GDP year after year.