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Home / News / India /  Coronavirus: Crucial India be extra vigilant, public health experts say

NEW DELHI: It has become crucial that India be extra-vigilant about the spread of COVID-19, commonly referred to as the novel coronavirus, after the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday raised the global risk assessment of the outbreak to "very high."

Industry experts have called for deliberations for India to be prepared and have measures in place to mitigate any economic impact in case of an untoward situation, given the country's compromised health infrastructure and high dependence on China, the epicentre of the outbreak, for medical equipment and crucial raw materials meant for key sectors.

"The very high risk assessment by WHO for spread and impact of coronavirus at global level highlights that healthcare as a sector can have cascading effect on economies of nations and there is a need to reduce disparities of healthcare delivery standards not only within countries but also across countries," said Siddhartha Bhattacharya, secretary general, NATHEALTH, healthcare federation of India.

India is still struggling with an evolving public health system. Experts hold that with a modest 1.3% of GDP spent on health, India is yet to develop robust primary care, quality emergency response infrastructure, and a surveillance system that can easily detect infections. There is also a lack of strong case record management and care continuum integration backed by universal financing.

"Any shock to the health system triggered by a virus has the potential to fill up hospital beds, overwhelm the crowded public health infrastructure, drain healthcare medical workforce capacity and increase out of the pocket expenditure," said Bhattacharya.

"Many countries strategically stockpile life-saving drugs and medical countermeasures in preparation for an outbreak such as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority’s Project Bioshield in the United States. India may consider in future countermeasure options which make nations epidemic resilient."

India has a vast majority of health care delivered often by unlicensed, unregulated healthcare providers. “A strong community reliance on druggist and chemists will need to be factored in the first line of defence in local communities," Bhattacharya added.

The government has stepped up screening at all major points of entry into the country to keep the virus at bay. It has initiated a number of critical measures to build up necessary reserves based on planned contingencies for critical medical supplies and reduce cascading effect on contracts by invoking the force majure clause.

Bhattacharya argued that a resilient and robust healthcare system backed by strategic reserve of critical medical supplies with adequate financial protection of its citizens will boost India's prospects of becoming a $5 trillion economy. The parallel handling of the COVID-19 crisis will only add to do that.

WHO has said the continued increase in the number of cases and the number of affected countries over the last few days are a cause of concern.

According to the apex health agency, there are now 4,351 cases in 49 countries other than China and 67 deaths. South Korea has become the new battleground, having reported a surge in cases - the most outside China.

Since Thursday, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Netherlands and Nigeria have all reported their first cases. The virus has infected over 85,000 people globally, with death toll at 2,924 as of Saturday.

"COVID-19 is quickly turning into a pandemic situation. With its spread to Europe and Middle East, India’s exposure also increases due to the large presence of floating diaspora population and trade links. We will need to strengthen screening at is ports of entry as a first line of control," said Himanshu Sikka, chief strategy & diversification officer and lead – Health, Nutrition & Wash, IPE Global, a health consultancy.

"Internally, as a second line of control, India needs to quickly look at its lab capabilities to ensure effective and quick diagnosis if the virus spreads in-country. At least one hospital per city should be made ready with quarantine facility," he said.

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