New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s relief package has taken no concrete measures to strengthen the public health system, despite the increased burden it is facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oxfam India said in a press note on May 20. “Even 1% of the 20 lakh crore would have helped set up around 48,000 Primary Health Centres,” said Amitabh Behar, CEO, Oxfam India, in the note, about the economic package announced by the PM on May 12, when he called for a self-reliant India or ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

The economic package gives a “massive subsidy” to the private sector just when it has failed to respond to the pandemic, Oxfam said, and the focus on digital education has excluded 85% of Indian students who lack access to the required infrastructure. “The package disappoints since it subsidises the private sector and doubles down on strategies that have not worked for India’s poor.”

No support for public health

The Indian government currently spends only Rs 3 on health per person per day, it says. This is among the lowest in the world; India’s public health expenditure as a share of its GDP is significantly lower than that of Brazil and China.

The only allocation towards public health continues to be the Rs 15,000 crore emergency response package announced on March 24, at the beginning of the countrywide lockdown.

The hospitalisation fee to treat a COVID-19 patient for a single day in a private hospital is equivalent to five months’ salary of an average Indian, the press note said, adding that private hospitals have often overcharged or denied services to the poor during the pandemic.

The only relevant commitment for health is the creation of a Rs 8,100 crore pool for viability gap funding (VGF) to boost private participation in creation of social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. However, without regulatory mechanisms for private hospitals, this would not benefit the poor or the middle class, the note said.

While only 300 patients have availed of treatment under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme since the pandemic was declared, public hospitals have been providing treatment for COVID-19 and they need strengthening, Oxfam said. Private hospital chains should not be subsidised, profiteering should be prevented and fees should be regulated, it added.

Digital education excludes 85% students

Despite 85% poor and middle-class students in the country not having access to the required infrastructure for digital education, the economic package stressed primarily on digital education as a model for teaching during the lockdown.

This emphasis on digital is discriminatory towards the poor and will further exacerbate inequality, Oxfam said, as only 2.7% of India’s poorest households have access to a computer. While digital education has been popularised, no announcements have been made to build teachers’ capacities to teach in the digital mode.

More inclusive approaches such as teaching in small groups or classroom teaching while ensuring physical distancing were not even explored, but should be, it said. “India's poor are left to be completely ‘Aatmanirbhar’ in education,” the press note added.

(Tiwari is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend)