MUMBAI / NEW DELHI (Reuters) – When Manit Parikh’s mother tested positive for the new corona virus, she was taken to the private Lilavati hospital in Mumbai by ambulance, but officials told the family that no intensive care beds were available.
FILE PHOTO: Men with protective masks enter the hospital where a special coronavirus disease ward was set up on March 17, 2020 in Mumbai, India. REUTERS / Francis Mascarenhas / File Photo
Five hours and dozens of phone calls later, the family found a bed for them in the private Bombay Hospital. A day later, on May 18, Parikh’s 92-year-old diabetic grandfather had difficulty breathing at home and was taken to the city’s Breach Candy Hospital, another first-class private facility, but there were no beds.
“My father asked her,” Parikh told Reuters. “They said they didn’t have a bed, not even a normal bed.” They found a bed at Bombay Hospital later that day, but his grandfather died hours later. His test results showed that he was infected with the virus.
Parikh said he believed the delays had contributed to his grandfather’s death. Lilavati and Bombay Hospital officials declined to speak to Reuters. Breach Candy Hospital officials did not respond to requests for comments.
India’s booming private hospitals have been relieving the country’s underfunded and dilapidated public health network for years, but the torture of Parikh’s family suggests that, with the explosion of coronavirus cases in India, even private facilities are at risk of being overrun.
India reported 6,767 new coronavirus infections, the country’s largest one-day increase, on Sunday. Government data shows that the number of coronavirus cases in the world’s second largest country doubles approximately every 13 days, even if the government begins to relax the restrictions on blocking. India has reported more than 131,000 infections, including 3,867 deaths.
“The increasing trend has not slowed,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, regarding India’s cases. “We haven’t seen the curve flatten out.”
The Mukherjee team estimates that between 630,000 and 2.1 million people in India – of 1.3 billion people – will be infected by early July.
More than a fifth of the country’s coronavirus cases are in Mumbai, India’s financial center and most populous city, where the Parikhs struggled to find hospital beds for their infected family members.
The Indian Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment on how to cope with the predicted increase in infections, as most public hospitals are overcrowded at best. The federal government has stated in media briefings that not all patients need to be hospitalized and is making rapid efforts to increase the number of hospital beds and to procure health care equipment.
Federal government data from last year showed that there were approximately 714,000 hospital beds in India, compared to approximately 540,000 in 2009. However, given the growing population of India, the number of beds per 1,000 people has increased only slightly during this period.
India has 0.5 beds per 1,000 population, according to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), compared to 0.4 beds in 2009, but is among the lowest countries surveyed by the OECD. In contrast, China has 4.3 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants and the United States 2.8 according to the latest OECD figures.
While millions of poor people in India rely on the public health system, especially in rural areas, government agencies say 55% of hospital admissions. The private health sector has grown over the past two decades, particularly in the major cities of India, where a growing class of wealthy Indians can afford private care.
The Mumbai city government said it had ordered officials to take control of at least 100 private hospital beds in all 24 zones of the city, which have nearly 20 million residents, to provide more beds for coronavirus patients.
Nevertheless, there is a waiting list. An official from a hotline operated by Mumbai’s authorities told Reuters that patients would be informed of the availability.
It’s not just beds that are in short supply. On May 16, the Mumbai City Council announced that it did not have enough staff to operate the beds needed for patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
As a result, resident doctors receive less free time than the federal government mandated, the agency said. Some doctors told Reuters that they were already overworked and treated patients without adequate protective equipment, which put them at higher risk of infection.
Several hospitals in Mumbai, in the western state of Gujarat, in the northern city of Agra and in Kolkata in the east have been partially or completely closed for days due to some medical workers being infected with the virus. The federal government has reported no deaths from medical personnel due to the virus.
“Health care has never been a priority in our country,” said Dr. Adarsh Pratap Singh, director of the 2,500-strong medical association at the top public hospital in New Delhi, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “The government is now realizing it is too late.”
The AIIMS group has protested the lack of health equipment in recent weeks and has publicly denied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request that doctors donate part of their salary to his coronavirus fund.
Some health experts say India’s struggle to treat viral patients is the result of a chronic underinvestment in healthcare. The Indian government estimates that it spends only about 1.5% of its GDP on public health. That number is higher than before – around 1% in the 1980s and 1.3% five years ago – but India is still one of the lowest financiers in the world in terms of percentage of GDP.
This year, the federal government of Modi increased its health budget by 6%. However, this is not in line with the government’s goal of increasing public health spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2025, according to the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.
“TOO MANY PATIENTS”
Keshav Desiraju, a former Indian health minister, said that more investment in the health system before the virus broke out could have made the health system more resilient. “All the holes show up in times of crisis,” he told Reuters.
Dr. Chaitanya Patil, a senior doctor at the King Edward Memorial government hospital, one of the largest in Mumbai, said the facility lacked medical staff and the 12 coronavirus wards for approximately 500 patients were almost full.
“There are just too many patients coming in,” said Patil. “It is a lack of willingness or insight into the people who are planning.”
Last week, Maheshashtra State Health Minister Rajesh Tope, who included Mumbai, said the shortage of hospital beds for critically ill patients would not last long.
“Over the next two months, more than 17,000 vacancies will be filled by doctors, nurses, technicians and other health workers,” he said in a public address.
The Indian United Nurses Association, which represents 380,000 medical professionals, submitted a list of 12 issues to the Supreme Court in April that it claims it faces – including lack of protective equipment and housing. The court informed them that they could file complaints through a state hotline.
Some nurses leave the big cities. Earlier this month, around 300 nurses working in hospitals in the city of Calcutta traveled to their hometown in the remote northeastern Indian state of Manipur, 1,500 km away. A group they represented said they left because of irregular salaries and inadequate safety equipment, among other things.
“We love our job,” said 24-year-old Shyamkumar, who is leaving nursing at one of the Calcutta hospitals and plans to return to Manipur. “But when we go to work, please give us the right equipment.”
Reporting by Abhirup Roy in Mumbai and Devjyot Ghoshal and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav and Shilpa Jamkhandiker in Mumbai, Sumit Khanna in Gujarat, Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata, Zarir Hussain in Guwahati; Edited by Euan Rocha and Bill Rigby