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New Delhi: In a big-ticket economic package to tackle the anticipated third wave of covid-19, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday announced 50,000 crore relief for the health sector under the 1.1 lakh crore loan guarantee scheme for pandemic-hit sectors.

The government's significant investment towards health is aimed at upscaling medical infrastructure targeting underserved areas. “There will be a guarantee cover for expansion and new projects related to health and medical infrastructure in cities other than 8 metropolitan cities. The guarantee coverage will have 50% for expansion and 75% for new projects," said Sitharaman.

“For aspirational districts, there will be guarantee cover of 75% for both new projects and expansion. The maximum loan will be 100 crore with guarantee duration of up to 3 years. The interest rate will be capped at 7.95%. The guarantee will be by National Credit Guarantee Trustee Company Limited," she said.

Keeping in mind warning from public health experts that the third wave may impact children, the finance minister has allocated an additional 23,220 crore for public health sector, with primary focus on pediatric care. “We have allocated more for Public Health. 15,000 crores have been allocated for Emergency Health Systems Project (2020-21) that will lead to 25 folds increase in COVID dedicated hospitals," said the finance minister.

The finance minister announced the setting up of 7,929 covid health centres, 9,954 covid care centres, 7.5 times increase in oxygen supported beds, 42 folds increase in isolation beds, 45 folds increase in ICU beds. “New scheme focused on short term emergency preparedness with special emphasis on children and paediatric care/paediatric beds. 23,220 crores have been earmarked for one year," said the finance minister.

The economic package also augured funding for short-term human resources (HR) augmentation through medical students including interns, residents, final year and nursing students. The central government said that there will be an increase in the availability of ICU beds, oxygen supply at the central, district and subdistrict level.

The government said it will ensure adequate availability of equipment, medicines, access to teleconsultation; ambulance services. Further, there will be enhanced testing capacity and supportive diagnostics, strengthen capacity for surveillance and genome sequencing, said the finance minister.

Public health experts have welcomed the allocations arguing for more support at the same time. “The pinpoint focus on augmenting manpower and infrastructural resources for paediatric care is a welcome step and a new beginning. Increased outlay of 50,000 crores on scaling up medical infrastructure in the metropolitan cities, as well as other areas, would be useful in the short term, but has to be increased manifold to make up for neglect of the healthcare sector over the past several decades," said Harsh Mahajan, President, NATHEALTH, healthcare federation of India.

Mahajan argued that loans should be provided readily to the private sector for upgrading existing infrastructure and building new ones, at very low-interest rates, preferably zero, as ROI in this sector is very slow and low. “There can be no better time than the present, to fulfil the long-pending demand of the healthcare sector to be accorded infrastructure status, in both letter and spirit, to enable the nation to frog leap to the next level of healthcare," he said.

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