An infected person travels from West Africa to India and seeks treatment at an underfinanced and overwhelmed public hospital. There, substandard treatment unleashes an Ebola pandemic. It is the nightmare scenario set out by Peter Piot, the British microbiologist who first identified the Ebola virus. About 45,000 Indians live in West Africa, and Indian trade with Nigeria, particularly in medical services and pharmaceuticals, has boomed.
However, India’s most troubling threat is not abroad, but at home: The crippled public health system. The nation spends less than 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on public health care. There are only nine hospital beds per 10,000 in India, compared with 41 per 10,000 in China, and doctors, nurses and lab technicians are critically lacking.
The Indian government has already shown itself incapable of dealing with lethal viral diseases. As many as 80 per cent of the 30 million Indians infected with dengue fever every year never seek medical care or are turned away from hospitals whose beds are full. Ebola would quickly overwhelm such strained hospitals.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a universal health insurance plan inspired by the Affordable Care Act in the United States. This would help more people afford care but do little to plug the gaping holes in the system.
The government has set up screenings for Ebola at international airports and prepared isolation wards. And, so far, no cases have been found in India. The nation has also contributed US$12.5 million (S$15.9 million) to contain the Ebola virus in West Africa and has pledged to use its expertise in producing low-cost drugs to develop an affordable vaccine.
But with the World Health Organization warning that Ebola infection rates could rise to 10,000 new victims a week by the end of the year in West Africa, and the fumbles dealing with Ebola in Spain and America, improving India’s public health system is a national emergency.