A 100 per cent centrally-funded five-year scheme worth Rs15,000 crores to strengthen national and state-level health systems was approved on Wednesday as India fights to control the spread of the infectious COVID-19 virus, the government has said.
The “COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness Package” will be implemented in three phases –from January 2020 to June 2020, from July 2020 to March 2021 and from April 2021 to March 2024. This fund will be divided among all states and union territories.
Activities to be funded under this scheme include the development of dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, ICUs (intensive care unit) and supply of oxygen in medical centres.
“With the objective of emergency COVID-19 response, (a fund has been set up for) strengthening national and state health systems to support prevention and preparedness, procurement of essential medical equipment, consumables and drugs and strengthening of surveillance activities, including setting up laboratories and bio-security preparedness,” a circular signed by the Director of the National Health Mission (NHM) said.
Activities listed under the first phase also include disinfection of hospitals and government ambulances, as well as the purchase of PPE (personal protection equipment) and N-95 face masks.
India has reported over 5,865 COVID-19 cases so far, including at least 169 deaths. Maharashtra (1,135 cases, 72 deaths), Tamil Nadu (738 cases, eight deaths) and Delhi (669 cases, nine deaths) are the areas worst-hit, so far. As of Monday, cases have been reported from 284 districts across 28 states and union territories.
The scale of the outbreak, and the speed with which it has spread over the past few weeks, has left several states scrambling for funds to fight the virus.
The three-week “total lockdown” imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month has also been testing states’ economic resilience.
States are slashing salaries, demanding an increase in borrowing limits and asking for fund transfers from the Centre as tax revenues and reserves dry up.
Both Telangana (442 cases, seven deaths) and Andhra Pradesh (348 cases, six deaths) have deferred at least portions of the salaries of some, including the Chief Minister. The Delhi government has stopped all expenditures except salaries.
The Centre too has gone into belt-tightening mode, with salaries of union ministers and MPs, starting with the Prime Minister, slashed by 30 per cent for the current fiscal.
This week the Union Home Ministry released Rs11,092 crores from the State Disaster Risk Management Fund. In March, the Centre also allowed states to tap into their respective disaster response funds (SDRF).
The question of funds to fight the novel coronavirus outbreak became a political issue this week after the Centre’s decision to suspend, for two years, the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Fund (MPLAD)—a sum of Rs5 crore allotted to MPs every year for development works in their constituencies.
The decision was criticised by Congress MP Karti Chidambaram, who called it “absolutely unacceptable”.
Meanwhile, the World Bank has approved $1 billion in emergency funds for India. The funds, the financial agency said, should be used to “support better screening, contact tracing, and laboratory diagnostics” among other expenditures.