The COVID 19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has brought a lot of serious problems for India. Disease, death, social unrest and economic collapse are not easy to deal with simultaneously,particularly for a country as large and populous as ours. But is that all that that this pandemic has brought?
The answer is a vehement no.
When was the last time citizens of India collectively deliberated about the health infrastructure of the country? When was the role of immunity in battling a disease pondered upon by the common man on such a massive scale? Did people across the country ever realise the importance of regularly washing hands with soap, the way they do now? When did mainstream media report on hunger, food insecurity, health, and nutrition on such a regular basis?
COVID 19 has definitely changed a lot in India. Health and nutrition have suddenly taken centre stage for almost every citizen. People are eager to learn how to deal with infections and improve their nutrition status, and understand the nuances of health infrastructure. Phrases like “Flattening the curve”, “breaking the chain’’, “immunity” and are longer esoteric scientific jargon, but a part of our common discourse.
Health and nutrition issues have always been affecting people, but COVID 19 has forced people to seek a deeper understanding about these subjects. Never have the front-line workers, the ANM, ASHA, and Aanganwadi Workers been recognized the way they have been now. Although this may not be the best time to assess the India’s response in combating COVID 19, it is very clear that we are heavily dependent on our front-line warriors to deal with the crisis.
While we may still have to wait for a vaccine or treatment for COVID 19, the numbers show that India with all its challenges has dramatically upscaled its capacities in health and nutrition infrastructure. The Ministry of Finance has announced its plans to hike the GDP spend on public health from the current 1.3 % to 2.5% by 2025. A little above Rs 4000 crore has been released by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for COVID 19 activities, and Rs 4300 crore has been disbursed for the purchase of essential items and test kits. And a whopping Rs 15000 crore has been allocate for containment of COVID 19.
But while a lot has been done to prevent the infection from spreading and assist those who require food, health and other services, a lot more needs to be done. As India puts all its efforts to deal with the crisis and revive the economy, in order to strengthen the health and nutrition landscape it must focus on the 5D’s: Dialogue, Decentralize, Digitalize, Data and Diversification.
- Dialogue is essential to empower the frontline workers to help them deal with the current crisis, and after that, to bring all stakeholders together to foster effective convergence and generate awareness among the community about their rights, entitlements and roles.
- Decentralizing responsibility and accountability is a must to enable local governance to provide customized solutions in a timely fashion.
- Digital outreach is extremely necessary to ensure the masses receive the correct messages, particularly in these times of multiple communication channels and fake news.
- Data must be the basis for taking strategic decisions, and comprehensive data visualization tools should be used to scale up and optimise resource utilization.
- Diversified approaches are needed to involve multiple sectors, and make health and nutrition a focus of the non-health sector too.
Moving forward, the key would be to set the basics right in the health system, but equally crucial will be to invest in food systems, social protection systems and WASH systems. India has a humongous task of making communities aware about health and nutrition practices, especially the vulnerable population like women and children.
The need of the hour is to invest in ensuring diversification of diets, optimum nutrition, and timely rolling out of cost effective, scalable, sustainable, gender sensitive and innovative
interventions. It’s time to leverage technology for agriculture, incentivising production of diverse foods and its storage, processing and preservation, food fortification in large scale programs and robust behaviour change interventions.
A crisis like COVID 19 is fortunately rare, but it has also brought immense opportunities, and what we make of them will define how our present will be judged by our future. As the Swiss doctor,psychiatrist, aviator and explorer Bertrand Piccard put it, “Pioneering spirit should continue, not to conquer the planet or space, but rather to improve the quality of life”.
Priyanka Baja - Nutrition Expert with WeCan, IPE Global
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