Mathematically, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, neither more nor less. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the parts and overwhelmed the whole. The lockdown, as it was conceived originally, was meant to be, at best, a stopgap arrangement that would help nations tide over the crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But as the days rolled on, and the lockdown moved on from phase to phase, it has caused a paralysis in general health care. As sparse health care resources in most parts of the country have been channelled towards the COVID-19 effort, the numbers have risen, but normal health care services have been in suspended animation for just under two months now. Staff running several national health programmes, and State health missions, besides health care workers from tertiary hospitals down to the primary health centres, have been diverted to buttress public health efforts in the COVID-19 battle. And the epidemic still rages on, with thousands of people testing positive every day and the number of cases coursing past the 1 lakh mark. Lockdowns have been partially lifted in some areas and in others, a mere semblance of normalcy has returned. As conditional movement has been allowed, people travelling across States bring positive cases to States or districts that have remained case-free for a while now.
But the time has now come for the country to attempt an equipoise of sorts, balance the different requirements of health care, along with efforts to continue to fight COVID-19. While health-care services themselves have been on the backfoot for non-COVID-19 conditions, except in emergencies, access too, for the bulk of the population, has been hampered by the non-availability of public transportation. Recent data culled from the National Health Mission pointed to less than normal coverage in key areas such as immunisation, institutional deliveries; further, delay, or failure, in delivering life-saving drugs to persons with HIV, tuberculosis, or inability to offer support for other chronic conditions have been documented. The usually robust private health system, which caters to various segments of the population, also took a back seat, or played a supportive role. While the Finance Minister’s announcement on increase in health allocations as part of the ₹20-lakh crore relief package is welcome, more than money is required to set this right. If life after COVID-19 is not to be worse than life before the pandemic, the governments need to ensure that the country’s multi-layered health system is not sacrificed at the altar of one virus; they need to give it their whole attention, now.