How Policy Making Will Play A Crucial Role In This Pandemic Time

Pandemic preparedness not only addresses the measures that need to be taken when an outbreak occurs but also ensures that the health care system in the country is advanced enough to ensure the availability of resources.

It is when World Health Organization (WHO) published an article on 16 December 2019 titled ‘India readies itself to address the threat of pandemic influenza’, exactly 15 days before WHO China country office was first informed about the cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology detected in Wuhan city, India’s preparation to fight COVID-19 started. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in India was getting support from WHO to implement Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) framework. The framework was being made based on the lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic and other major seasonal influenza outbreaks. At the time of a pandemic, National Health policy and advanced planning play a crucial role in handling the crisis. Is the framework of MoHFW with WHO equipped well enough to deal with COVID-19? 

Despite preparedness, India invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to fight the coronavirus, a colonial law that does not work well in this information age. But, Several States of India woke up well before the country realized the pandemic’s seriousness. Kerala was the first state in India to report the positive COVID-19 case. While the rest of India, along with some developed countries wouldn’t take stringent steps to limit the spread till March, Kerala ordered to start screening passengers at four International airports in the state in the month of January 2020. Also, it brought in an Epidemic Ordinance on 27 March, which acted as a powerful tool to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. It closed State borders, put restrictions on travel, insisted on social distancing, and regulated working conditions. But this is just an extension of the Epidemic Diseases Act and does not provide any preparatory framework to address a Pandemic like COVID-19. 

Pandemic preparedness not only addresses the measures that need to be taken when an outbreak occurs but also ensures that the health care system in the country is advanced enough to ensure the availability of resources. The National Health Policy 2017 attempted to improve India’s health care system – its agenda of increasing health expenditure by Government as a percentage of GDP from 1.15% to 2.5% by 2025, ensuring availability of paramedics and doctors as per Indian Public Health Standard (IPHS) norm in high priority districts by 2020.. Also, the Public Health (Prevention, Control, and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism, and Disasters) Bill 2017 looked promising for addressing a pandemic like now, but unfortunately, the bill lapsed. In a country like India, many people out of 1.4 billion population, don’t even have running water to sanitize things and maintaining social distancing is a near-impossible task. A robust health care system is an is the first criterion to save lives during pandemic outbreaks. Even the health care system of the most advanced countries struggled to cope with the outbreak of COVID-19.. On the other hand, India had just 0.5 hospital beds for every 1000 people, compared to Italy which has  3.2 beds per 1000 people, and china with 4.3 per 1000. Also, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits for health care workers in India were in short supply. Hence, building the resources and improving the health care systems should be the top priority to ensure the long-term sustainability of pandemic preparedness. 

With the existing gaps in the current measures, it is necessary to review National Health Policy, 2017, which is formulated by the existing Government to combat public health measures. The policy already had the base but needs to be revamped because of issues such as lack of policy direction; reliance on a 123-year-old Epidemic Act. The government, in its new policy framework, should focus on integrating it with the policies on disaster management, food & nutrition security, environment, water & air pollution and other environmental issues.  

If we consider global response on COVID-19, the European Union, Australia, and the United Kingdom have specific legal frameworks to deal with Pandemics like this. But a health crisis like COVID-19 calls for sudden, flexible and drastic regulatory measures in health policies. Strategies for disease monitoring adopted in countries that have dealt best with the virus so far are South Korea and Malaysia. South Korea has adopted a robust mechanism utilizing Technology to fight against the coronavirus. Malaysia opened sufficient isolation centres in the country. Spain, on the other hand has nationalized all private hospitals in response to COVID-19 handling. The Global health sector needs to incorporate innovative mechanisms to tackle a pandemic besides the regulatory framework of public health laws. Against this backdrop, India’s pandemic control framework also needs to revisit the lapsed National health policy 2017 and revise the 2009 Bill to provide robust policies in handling the pandemic. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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