Healthcare during Covid: Global partnerships have helped India and the world innovate

August 28, 2020 6:05 AM

Are we willing to compromise on innovation and quality based on origin of the products manufactured? In a recent statement, Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal emphasised how the country cannot afford to remain dependent on low-cost, low-quality products. While it is encouraging the government is strengthening the domestic industry, we are seeing lapses in healthcare quality that we possibly cannot afford.

It is interesting to see how India’s self-reliance story is emerging, but it would be incomplete in the absence of quality care.

By NK Ganguly

With global economies finding themselves in the coronavirus snare, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way we treat patients, provide healthcare access and author policies that make an impact. What we decide today will shape the global societies of tomorrow and hence the need for a pragmatic approach. India, with the world’s second largest population, among the lowest healthcare spend and 75% import dependency on medical devices, has been able to address critical issues like accessible healthcare—ramped up testing, provision of hospital beds and quarantine centres, and the provision of Covid-19 treatment centres with oxygen-equipped beds. It is interesting to see how India’s self-reliance story is emerging, but it would be incomplete in the absence of quality care.

Zooming in on India’s ‘self-reliant’ rhetoric

Our reliance on the world for medical devices is nothing new. But the dependence became more pronounced as India struggled to fight for quality products. From poor quality ventilators to N95 masks, our fight to become self-reliant has taken many hits in the last few months. N95 masks are a classic example. The N95 respirator should ideally filter 95% of particles larger than 0.3 microns. Investigations have revealed that many of these poor-quality masks filter only 60-80% of 0.3-micron particles. What does this mean? It means we are putting healthcare workers at risk. These masks must meet quality standards by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. But do they?
Recently, the government removed N95 masks from its ‘essential commodities’ list. This will now propel the entry of fakes and spuriously certified options at much cheaper prices into the market. We are taking another risk in the name of affordability like we did in the case of ventilators.

The need to strengthen quality healthcare

Amid the ongoing scuffle with China, the government has made it mandatory for sellers to provide the ‘country of origin’ on its e-marketplace (GeM) portal, which is consumed by government departments for public procurement. While the move seeks to empower domestic industry, can we let geography decide the quality of healthcare for our people?

Even as ‘Make in India’ seeks to encourage domestic market of medical devices, make them more affordable, the quality of these medical devices remains in question. Are we willing to compromise on innovation and quality based on origin of the products manufactured? In a recent statement, Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal emphasised how the country cannot afford to remain dependent on low-cost, low-quality products. While it is encouraging the government is strengthening the domestic industry, we are seeing lapses in healthcare quality that we possibly cannot afford.

With the third largest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, India has many battles to fight on the domestic front. Now, as India looks at strengthening its own market with domestic companies taking the plunge, it is imperative that global standards are met. Over the years, global partnerships and alliances have helped India and the world exchange the value of innovation that helps patients lead better lives. Our experience of a pandemic is nothing new.

From the Spanish Flu that claimed more than 17 million lives to Covid-19 impacting lives across geographies, medical science has seen many outbreaks; most we have been able to fight with innovations that transformed lives. These innovations promise quality to people around the world, and India is no different. As we work towards strengthening the domestic market, we must also ensure that patients have access to the best quality products, and their safety is not compromised in the name of geography or accessibility.

The author is a former director general, Indian Council of Medical Research

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