India's social inequalities reflected in coronavirus care

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People wait in a queue for COVID- 19 test at a government designated hospital, in New Delhi, India June 10, 2020. While Indias leaders have promised coronavirus testing and care for all who need it, regardless of income, treatment options are as stratified and unequal as the country itself. Care ranges from crowded wards at public hospitals that some worry will make them sicker than if they stayed home to spacious suites at private hospitals that only the wealthy can afford. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI – When Pradeep Kumar's wife was admitted to a government-run hospital in India's capital for treatment of COVID-19, it took two days before she was able to see a doctor.

“There are six other women in her room and everyone is frustrated,” he said outside New Delhi's LNJP Hospital. “They're behaving like they're leprosy patients.”

Kumar’s wife had just given birth when she found out she had the virus. She was told she would have to change hospitals and be admitted at one set up to handle coronavirus patients, an exhausting process that took hours.

Though India’s leaders have promised coronavirus testing and care for all who need it, regardless of income, treatment options are as stratified and unequal as the country itself. Care ranges from crowded wards at public hospitals that some worry will make them sicker than if they stayed home to spacious suites at private hospitals that only the wealthy can afford.

Under India's health care system, everyone should be able to receive either free or highly subsidized care at those public hospitals depending on their income. But the system has been chronically underfunded, meaning government hospitals are overburdened and patients often face dayslong waits for even basic treatments.

World Health Organization data shows that India's government spent $63 per person on health care for its 1.3 billion people in 2016. By comparison, China spent $398 for each of its 1.4 billion people in 2016, according to the WHO.

Though India has managed to halve its poverty rate over the past 15 years, some 176 million people still live on less than $1.90 a day, and experts say the pandemic is shining a spotlight on the country's vast inequalities in everything from employment rights to health care.

“Epidemics usually are good mirrors of society and country,” said Pratik Chakrabarti, a history of science professor at the University of Manchester, adding that this one “has exposed how precarious people’s lives are” in India.