Spiraling health care expenses in India have been pushing more than 55 million Indians into a state of abject poverty every year. COVID-19 has only worsened the trend for even more families—like Aghan Singh’s.
To ensure that his sick mother received the best treatment, Singh, a self-employed motor mechanic in the small town of Bilaspur, in Chhattisgarh, India, decided to take her to a popular private hospital nearby. She had been running a fever since July 7 and had also developed breathlessness by July 9. Singh rushed her to the hospital, and when they reached the emergency department around 8 p.m., her oxygen levels were dangerously low. The hospital ordered a battery of tests for COVID-19 and quickly admitted her to an intensive care unit to give her oxygen and medicine. In the first eight hours of his mother being admitted to the hospital, Singh deposited Rs 34,000 ($455) and then paid another Rs 1,96,000 ($2,627) over the next four days. To arrange money for his mother’s treatment, Singh had to sell off two and a half acres of land that he owned in his native village. Despite all his efforts, his mother’s condition worsened progressively, and she died on July 16. While still grieving the loss of his beloved mother, he was further stressed about how his family would survive the next month with most of his resources having been exhausted during his mother’s treatment.
Also in the state of Chhattisgarh, when 60-year-old Savani Bai from the village of Dhanokhar developed mild symptoms of COVID-19, she spoke to a doctor on the state helpline and was advised to go to the hospital. Since all the government hospital beds were occupied, she had to be admitted to the same private hospital in Bilaspur as Singh’s mother, where she was admitted to a general COVID ward. During her 10-day hospitalization, she was given acetaminophen and was kept under daily observation to ensure her condition was not worsening. For this basic treatment, she ended up spending Rs 85,000 ($1,137) and had to mortgage her one-acre farm to meet her hospital expenses.
“I took my mother to a private hospital near my home because it is cleaner and they admit patients swiftly throughout the day,” Singh said. Due to inadequate funding and monitoring of quality control in public hospitals, a large number of people in India are being forced to go to private hospitals for both outpatient, and to a lesser extent, inpatient care. It is a cruel joke that such a move to seek treatment in private hospitals by people is seen as a ‘choice’ rather than a compulsion.
India, which is the “second worst-hit country behind the United States,” has been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with a fragile health system. The country saw one of the most draconian lockdowns anywhere in March, leading to a sense of panic and causing many private hospitals to simply shut up shop or turn away patients during the lockdown period. “I am 59 years old