Coronavirus: India′s public health system on the verge of collapse | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 18.09.2020

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Coronavirus: India's public health system on the verge of collapse

India's hospitals are currently short of doctors, medical equipment and ICU beds, with authorities struggling to cope with an unprecedented health crisis. A surge in COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed the health system.

Hospitals in India have become overwhelmed due to an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases. Authorities in the capital in Delhi have instructed 33 private hospitals to reserve 80% of their intensive care unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients amid a shortage of facilities in government-run medical institutes.

At the beginning of August, Delhi had successfully contained the pandemic spread, with the cases dropping to less than 1,000 per day. But there has been a resurgence of the virus across the country, and the capital city had not been spared.

The overall number of COVID-19 cases in Delhi has now surpassed 230,000. In the last eight days, more than 4,000 new cases have been recorded daily.

"There seems to be no end to this crisis. We are overwhelmed with rising infections. It is not just Delhi; there is a shortage of trained medical staff in both government and private hospitals across the country," Dr. Anoop Saraya, who works at Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told DW.

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Data from the local government's hospital occupancy app, Delhi Corona, shows there are no ICU beds with ventilators available to coronavirus patients in eight of the capital's 11 top private hospitals.

"The number of patients being admitted had dropped, but since the beginning of September, they have started going up again. There is a similar situation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states. I am afraid that the spike in cases will strain the entire public health system," Dr. Rajeev Chawla, a consulting pulmonologist at Indraprastha Apollo hospital in Delhi, told DW.

Hospitals completely overwhelmed

India recently surpassed 5 million COVID-19 cases, with almost 85,000 deaths. It is now behind only the US in overall COVID-19 infections. The cases have doubled from 2.5 million in just a month.

There is chaos in several cities, with hospitals running short of medical equipment.

In the northern state of Punjab, shortage of beds, crowded hospitals and overworked health workers exposed the frailty of the health system. The state's infection tally has risen rapidly to 87,100 cases with over 2,500 deaths in the past few days.

Many patients are unable to find a place in hospitals.

"The cases are also increasing in Chandigarh [a city in Punjab]. A large number of patients needs emergency treatment. We are facing a huge challenge," Dr. B S Chavan, the dean of the Government Medical College in Chandigarh, told DW.

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Madhur Rao, the senior deputy medical administrator of the Pune-based KEM Hospital, said the hospital was currently short of 160 nurses and 25 doctors.

"We urge authorities to allow third-year nursing students to work with us so that we can deal with this situation," Rao told DW.

The situation in Mumbai, India's financial capital, is relatively better, with at least a third of normal hospital beds still unoccupied. However, the hospitals there are still operating round the clock, and ICU beds and ventilators are scarce.

"COVID-19 has made clear how important it is to have a good public health system. We need to work on our healthcare system more than ever," K Sujatha Rao, a former health secretary, told DW.

Watch video 03:16

India's health system struggles as COVID-19 cases rise

Misplaced priorities

Despite these challenges, the Indian government has reopened gyms, most workplaces, and markets. Bars can once again serve alcohol, and limited domestic and international evacuation flights are being operated every day along with train services. Only cinemas, schools and colleges continue to remain shut.

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The country's health ministry claims there is no shortage of ventilators at the national level.

"India's current daily capacity of oxygen production is slightly more than 6,900 metric tons. We have ensured a proper inventory management at the hospital level. We are planning in advance to timely replenish the stock," Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan told a press conference.

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Earlier this month, the Finance Commission said the country would require €58 billion ($68.67 billion) over the next five years for the provision of basic healthcare to citizens.

Experts fear the death toll in India is likely to spike in the coming weeks, as the country relaxes lockdown restrictions in all but high-risk areas.