The nature of ‘black swan’ events is that they fast-forward historical processes. This is something we witnessed first-hand in the year gone by, as the great global health crisis of 2020—the Covid-19 pandemic—spread like wildfire and left in its wake a global economic downturn. The novel coronavirus delivered India’s fourth recession since its independence, and the first one since its liberalisation.
Surviving the pandemic has made one thing clear—we still have a long way to go before we can fully thrive in the post-pandemic era. What about thriving beyond it? The fastest vaccine ever made became a reality last quarter, therefore most of us are likely to be alive to freely inhabit a world that won’t need social distancing. While transitions to a herd immunity phase and the world’s largest mass inoculation drives have begun, it will be vital to understand how drastically the pandemic has changed the lives of Indians, and how it will affect our economy in the coming years.
I would like to decipher this impact from three crucial lenses—as a country, as an individual, and as the human race.
Intrinsic changes in the post-pandemic world
In many ways, there is no going back to the world we lived in before.
As a country, akin to many other countries, India’s economic activities came to a halt, witnessing a record 23.9 percent GDP contraction between April and June 2020. The financial contagion of the 2020 pandemic spread as fast as the virus itself. Thereby, establishing an inextricable link between health and economic progress. 11 million cases, 10.7 million recoveries, and a full year later (albeit with baby steps) many of the organised sectors are moving towards a K shaped recovery on the economic spectrum.
The unorganised sector, however, keeps finding itself on the wrong side of the spectrum. The government has supported small businesses so far with more accessibility to credit lines, modernising infrastructure, delivering tax benefits, etc. More would need to be done for them as a nation, so they can survive any cashflow crunches inevitable due to second waves of the virus that we are seeing in many parts of the country. Addressing some of the major concerns such as food security, malnutrition challenges, poverty, jobs in the rural economy, ensuring safe migration pathways, social safety, and encouraging the formalisation of the informal economy must be prioritised.
As individuals, we have been spending much of our daily lives in isolation this past year. On account of the fear of contagion and the government-imposed lockdown, ‘contactless’ and ‘digital’ became a way of life almost overnight. In our personal lives, we either spent too much time away from families or too overburdened with homely responsibilities. Social isolation, financial adversity, inability to access healthcare services for non-Covid conditions, job-layoffs have all played a part in the lives of millions of Indians. Women especially have borne the brunt of job loss, dealing with additional responsibilities at home and caring for children who have been out of school for a full academic year.
In the same vein, our expectations from healthcare as part of the human race has also changed. The sector that has always been underfunded, insular, and non-democratic, is today in the limelight. Owing to the pandemic, home diagnostics and online consultations have seen a favourable rise as it makes access to healthcare as close to home as possible. For the first time at a polity level, India’s union budget increased its outlay by an unprecedented 137 percent year-over-year for healthcare alone, recognising health and well-being as one of the key six pillars on which the Indian economy is built and today stands.
Investing in healthcare for a speedy recovery
While mass vaccination drives and building resistance to the virus with herd immunity is good, the country’s masses cannot rest safe just yet. For one, the larger cost of Covid-19 focused care has and will continue impacting several households and their financial stability. This is a key hurdle to fast recovery. Beyond financials, the long-term mental effects of the social isolation faced by people across generations have also thrown a spanner in the works of economic progress.
Covid-19 was neither the first nor the last epidemic or pandemic for humanity. H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2013, to name a few, have woken up many nations to their needs for long-term, data-driven, and well-governed approaches. India (or the world for that matter) cannot afford to impose prolonged lockdowns every time a new strain of a virus comes to town. Nor can we roll the Darwinian dice on herd immunity, as it also comes at a high cost of human capital. Probably why the biggest change is that holistic healthcare—both mental and physical—will now be viewed as an investment rather than a cost element by the government and the citizens.
The Damocles sword of K-shaped recovery needs to translate to a hockey stick recovery with a rapidly increased focus on healthcare. Healthier children with better access to healthcare lead to better performers in schools and colleges. Healthier adults translate to less time off of work and more productivity—essentially creating a virtuous cycle of continuous economic growth. It is therefore safe to say that healthcare is a consistent imperative while charting the growth map for the future, both at a polity, and an individual level.
The writer is a Managing Director of Metropolis Healthcare Limited