How India can be the game-changer in achieving global health equity
Infectious diseases like COVID-19, SARS or MERS do not remain confined to a particular part of the world. Thus, access to universal health coverage has become important now more than ever before, bringing into focus India’s role in providing affordable and universal healthcare
The third objective under Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 envisions ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all. Universal health coverage is an important step for safeguarding sustainable development, reducing poverty and inequalities in society. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out these disparities into greater focus and further amplified the importance of healthcare access to everyone.
Healthcare inequalities such as access and quality of healthcare, behavioural risks like smoking and drinking, and living conditions determine the status of people’s health. The inequalities due to socio-economic factors, geography, sex, disabilities, and ethnicity, lead to these differences. The discrepancy was clearly visible in the case of COVID-19 with people from economically backward countries, migrant labourers, and certain sections of the society being the worst affected due to poor access to healthcare and limited healthcare facilities.
Over 400 million people in the world still do not have access to even basic healthcare; COVID-19 further complicated the situation for patients suffering from chronic and other infectious diseases, who were impacted as all the focus shifted towards handling the global catastrophe. The pandemic also showed that unless these inequalities are addressed, in this era of globalisation and interconnected world, even the economically strong and advanced sections of the society will have to bear the cost as infectious diseases like COVID-19, SARS or MERS do not remain confined to a particular part of the world or section of the society. Thus, access to universal health coverage has become important now more than ever before.
This brings into focus the role India can play in providing affordable and universal healthcare. India has already established itself as the pharmacy of the world with quality affordable medicines. The role of India in vaccine supply and as the next innovation hub has amply been demonstrated in the COVID-19 pandemic with India leading not only as a production hub but also as a developer of indigenous vaccines at a fraction of price as compared to the global competitors.
The Indian biosimilar industry is making efforts to create a similar impact as the Indian pharmaceutical industry has been able to do, thus becoming a major production hub for biologicals as well. This needs to be extended further with efforts to make recent advances in medicines like CAR-T and gene therapies more affordable to tackle non-communicable diseases like cancer and diabetes. These technologies at their current price would not be able to reach the masses and would remain restricted to a privileged few despite their effectiveness in curing deadly diseases. The start-ups from India and the young scientific workforce can fill the major gap in skills and innovation required to take these technologies to the masses. Telemedicine coupled with Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and robotics can take the best of medical expertise and technology to the remotest parts of the world at an affordable price thus helping in realising the goal of universal health coverage.
India is emerging as a hub for medical devices too and can transform the medical equipment world as it did with pharmaceuticals. India is already a preferred destination for medical interventions at prices that are much cheaper than developed countries. The development of expertise and skills in precision cell-based and gene therapies and developing techniques to make them more universal can further help to take these lifesaving technologies to underprivileged sections of society. India has already made its space in medical tourism becoming the medical hub for complex procedures at reasonable prices. Medical robotics technology and telemedicine can further help take the expertise to third world countries and the Indian healthcare industry can make it happen with the support of the United Nations.
(The author is Dean and Professor, UPES School of Health Sciences. He specialises in Medicinal Chemistry and Chemical Biology.)