In Bengaluru, a significant proportion of private hospital beds are lying empty according to a state official.
According to a Times News Network (TNN) report, Dr K. Sudhakar – who serves as Minister of Medical Education and Control of COVID-19 in the Health and Family Welfare Department of the Karnataka state government – has reported vacancies in 78 percent of private hospital beds designated to COVID-19 patients in the state capital. A total of 3,331 private hospital beds spanning 72 hospitals are specified for the treatment of COVID-19 patients, he said. Of these, just 733 are filled.
Occupancy rates in civic hospitals are also relatively low. Of the 1,430 beds earmarked for COVID-19 patients, 400 are filled. In so-called COVID care centres, for the treatment of asymptomatic COVID carriers, around fifty percent are filled.
Sudhakar’s statement, TNN said, “come in the wake of patients struggling to find beds making headlines and suggest Bengaluru’s health infrastructure is not yet overwhelmed.” Indeed, there is much discourse at the national level about the potential for shortages of hospital beds during the ongoing pandemic.
COVID-19 – the disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), or simply coronavirus – rapidly mushroomed into a global health crisis unprecedented in modern memory. For India, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened early on to overwhelm an already beleaguered and underresourced public health system. This threat has swiftly become reality.
As Al Jazeera reported in early June, megacities like Delhi and Mumbai saw officials warn of major shortages of hospital beds, both in intensive care units (ICU) and general wards. Around the same time, a Delhiite doctor told the UK-based Telegraph that “our healthcare system is way too fragile to deal with the current situation, and we are not equipped at all to face what’s coming in the next few weeks…catastrophe awaits us.” One official told The Economic Times of the situation in Mumbai that “it has become like a musical chair on who finds the critical bed first,” following grievances aired by denizens of issues with a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) helpline.
The crisis has arrested the attention of the international press, with U.S. media reporting of patients dying due to lack of access to a bed. The crisis is amplified by India’s pre-existing burden of disease, one including both communicable and noncommunicable diseases. A number of underlying conditions are now widely understood to be risk factors for developing severe COVID-19, with a Lancet study estimating that more than one in five people worldwide are affected by diseases that heighten their risk.
Both public and private hospital beds being in short supply is a major issue that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on. Inequities in access to healthcare and long-standing human resources and infrastructural deficiencies have impaired India’s response to COVID-19. A dearth of beds is one manifestation of this.
As Professor Sarang Deo told me in a recent interview, “I don’t think there was any country that would have been fully prepared [for the pandemic] – least of all a developing country like India, where doctors are in short supply, hospital beds in ICUs are in short supply. From a sheer quantum of capacity of any resource, even good health systems were not prepared.” What the COVID crisis has shown, he added, is that “where there are already disparities, a crisis like this would just exacerbate and amplify them…you see the fault lines being exposed.”