Covid-19 opportunity for India to speed up Ayushman Bharat, says WHO chief

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus | Photo: Twitter/ DrTedros
The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, which has presented challenges for several nations, could be an opportunity for India to speed up the health insurance scheme Ayushman Bharat, especially with a focus on primary healthcare, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) chief cautioned against risks of an explosion of the coronavirus cases at an alarming rate in the densely-populated South Asia. 

Ghebreyesus was responding to a question on the Covid-19 situation in India, where the number of coronavirus cases are increasing rapidly.

India went past Italy on Friday to become the sixth worst-hit nation by the Covid-19 pandemic. India saw a record single-day jump of 9,887 coronavirus cases and 294 deaths on Saturday, pushing the nationwide infection tally to 2,36,657 and the death toll to 6,642, according to the health ministry.

"Of course Covid is very unfortunate and it's challenging for many nations but we need to look for opportunities too. For instance for India, this could be an opportunity to speed up Ayushman Bharat, especially with a focus on primary health care. I know there is a very strong commitment from the government to speed up the implementation of Ayushman Bharat and with primary healthcare and community engagement, I think we can really turn the tide, Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing in Geneva on Friday.

Ayushman Bharat is the world's largest health insurance scheme and was launched by the Narendra Modi government in 2018. Last month, Modi had said that the number of people who have benefited from the scheme crossed the one crore-mark. The scheme aims to cover more than 500 million beneficiaries and provide coverage of Rs 500,000 per family per year.

Referring to the Ayushman Bharat scheme, Ghebreyesus added that using and speeding up what has started could actually help in India and that's what WHO was very appreciative by the way when Ayushman Bharat started. And this could be a very good opportunity actually to test that and speed up and use it to really fight this pandemic.

"Particularly in South Asia, not just in India, but in Bangladesh and in Pakistan and other countries in South Asia with large dense populations, the disease has not exploded, but there is always the risk of that happening," Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said during a press conference on Friday.

"And as the disease generates and gets a foothold in communities, it can accelerate at anytime. The number of cases in India has been going up by an average of a third per week, so probably the doubling time of the epidemic in India is about three weeks at this stage", he added.

"So the direction of travel of the epidemic is not exponential, but it is still growing," he said.

Ryan said the measures taken in India "certainly had an impact in dampening transmission, and as India, as in other large countries open up and as people begin to move again, there's always a risk of the disease bouncing back up".

"I think the important thing is to really keep track of the the growth rate, the doubling time of the virus and make sure that that doesn't get worse," said WHO's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.

As India is a "heterogeneous and huge country with very densely populated cities", Swaminathan said it's important to wear face coverings.

After India, Pakistan is the worst affected in South Asia with 89,249 Covid-19 cases, and 1,935 fatalities. Bangladesh follows in the third position with 60,391 infections and 811 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University. With 18,969 cases and 309 deaths, Afghanistan is currently in the fourth position.

Nepal has reported 2,912 cases and 11 deaths, followed by Maldives 1,883 cases with seven deaths; and Sri Lanka with 1,801 cases and 11 deaths. Bhutan has registered 48 cases with no fatalities.

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