COVID leaves Indians with rising medical debts | Coronavirus pandemic news

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When coronavirus cases hit India this spring, Anil Sharma visited his 24-year-old son Saurav daily at a private hospital in northwest New Delhi for more than two months.

In May, when India’s new COVID-19 cases broke global records, reaching 400,000 a day, Saurav was put on a ventilator.

The sight of the hose that empties into Saurav’s throat is burned into Sharma’s mind.

“I had to stay strong when I was with him, but right after that I collapsed as soon as I left the room,” he said.

Anil Sharma shows a photo of his son Saurav being treated for COVID-19 in a private hospital in New Delhi [Manish Swarup/AP]

Saurav is home now, still weak and recovering. But the family’s joy is dampened by a mountain of debt that accumulated during his illness.

Life in India has returned to normal for the time being as coronavirus cases have decreased. But millions of people now face a huge mountain of medical bills that they owe as most Indians do not have health insurance.

Sharma used up his savings to pay for an ambulance, tests, medication, and an intensive care bed. Then he took out bank loans.

When the cost rose, he borrowed money from friends and relatives. Then he reached out to strangers and pleaded online on Ketto, an Indian crowdfunding website, for help.

Overall, Sharma says he paid more than $ 50,000 in medical bills.

Even though he received $ 28,000 through the crowdfunding platform, he still has to repay his lenders $ 26,000.

“He was fighting for his life and we were fighting to give him a chance to survive,” he said in a voice full of emotion.

“I was a proud father – and now I am a beggar.”

Sharma after visiting his son Saurav, who is being treated for COVID-19 in a private hospital in New Delhi [Manish Swarup/AP]

Bad public health system

The pandemic has devastated India’s economy, leaving millions of people in financial distress at the mercy of its chronically underfunded and fragmented health care system. Experts say such costs will inevitably hinder economic recovery.

“What we have is a patchwork of incomplete public insurance and a poor public health system. The pandemic has shown how creaky and unsustainable these two things are, ”said Vivek Dehejia, an economist who studied public policy in India.

Even before the pandemic, access to health care was a problem in India.

Indians pay about 63 percent of their medical costs out of pocket. This is typical of many poor countries with inadequate government benefits.

Data on global personal medical costs from the pandemic is difficult to come by, but treating COVID-19 is a tremendous added burden in India and many other countries at a time when hundreds of millions of jobs have disappeared.

In India, many jobs returned when cities opened after a severe lockdown in March 2020, but economists fear the loss of around 12 million employees.

Sharma’s job as a marketer was one of them.

When he asked his son’s friends to campaign on Ketto to raise funds, Sharma hadn’t seen a paycheck in 18 months.

Between April and June of this year, 40 percent of the 4,500 COVID-19 campaigns on the website were used for hospital stays, the company said.

32 million middle-class Indians: study

The pandemic has displaced 32 million middle-class Indians, defined as those who earn $ 10-20 a day, according to a study by the Pew Research Center published in March.

It estimates that the crisis has increased the number of India’s poor – those with an income of 2 or less a day – by 75 million.

“When you look at what drives people into debt or poverty, the two most important sources are often out-of-pocket health expenses and catastrophic treatment costs,” said K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

In the northeastern city of Imphal, 2,400 kilometers away, Diana Khumanthem lost her mother and sister to the virus in May.

Diana Khumanthem, 30, wipes her tears as she shares her COVID-19 experience sitting at home in Imphal in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur [Yirmiyan Arthur/AP]

Treatment costs wiped out the family’s savings, and when the private hospital where her sister died did not release her body for final rites until a bill of about $ 5,000 was paid, she pawned the family’s gold jewelry to moneylenders.

When that wasn’t enough, she asked her friends, relatives, and her sister’s colleagues for help. She still owes about $ 1,000.

Health insurance, introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018, was supposed to cover around 500 million of the 1.3 billion people in India and was an important step towards lowering medical costs.

However, it does not cover primary care and outpatient treatment costs, which comprise most of the expenses. So, according to a working paper by Duke University researchers, it has not been effective in improving access to care and financial risk protection.

The program has also been hampered by differences in state implementations, said Shawin Vitsupakorn, one of the authors of the paper.

Another paper from the Duke Global Health Institute and the Public Health Foundation of India found that the cost of hospitalization in the intensive care unit due to COVID-19 is almost 16 months of work for a typical Indian day laborer or seven to 10 months for employees or the self-employed . employed workers.

The meager financing of the health system, at just 1.6 percent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), is proportionally less than the spending of Laos or Ethiopia.

At the height of the outbreak in May, hospitals everywhere were overrun, but public institutions lacked the resources to handle the flood of patients.

“The result is a suffering public health system, where care is often poor, causing many to flock to private hospitals,” Dehejia said.

A public hospital treated Khumanthem’s mother, but her sister Ranjita was admitted to a private hospital, which cost $ 1,300 a day.

Ranjita was the family’s sole breadwinner after Khumanthem left her nursing job last year to return home during the first wave of the virus. She is now looking for work while taking care of her father and her sister’s three-year-old son.

Khumanthem plays with her three-year-old nephew Hridhaan (center), whom she plans to raise as her own child after the death of his mother Ranjita from COVID-19 [Yirmiyan Arthur/AP]

At her home in Imphal, Khumanthem mourned her mother by remembering her favorite food – “chagem pomba,” a kind of porridge made from vegetables, rice and soybeans. Every few minutes she looked at the front gate.

“This is usually the time Ranjita comes home from work,” she said. “I still think she could go through the gate at any moment now.”

Back in New Delhi, Sharma sighed in relief when an ambulance brought his son home from the hospital last week.

Saurav needs physical therapy to build his weakened muscles, a daily nurse, and a long list of medications. It can be weeks before he can assert himself and months before the ambitious lawyer, who was among the best of his class, can go back to court.

The costs remain.

“Our first priority was to save him,” said Sharma. “Now we have to take care of the rest.”


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