The COVID-19 pandemic weighed heavily on the healthcare systems around the globe. However, rural healthcare in India experienced a greater strain on its functioning owing to inadequate infrastructure and general unpreparedness to contain the transmission of the virus. Therefore, many rural regions saw a violent spread of the disease. In addition, the shortage of medical professionals and equipment also worsened the situation, especially in densely populated regions.
COVID-19 posed a challenge like never before due to its unique nature. It required comprehensive testing services, strategic surveillance plans and equipment, and, most importantly, qualified medical care. Managing rural healthcare amidst a global pandemic like this highlighted the opportunities to strengthen and improve the primary healthcare system in rural India.
The global pandemic of COVID-19 called for a public health strategy focused on epidemiology. The strategy required a special understanding of the causes and identifying appropriate population-based behavioural and educational programs. Since the pandemic happened in well-developed countries first, mobilising resources and achieving desired results were comparatively quicker and easier. On the other hand, India has around 68% of the population living in rural areas with the highest risks of diseases.
The healthcare system in India is still being transformed to meet global standards. While facing challenges such as workforce shortages, absenteeism, poor infrastructure and quality of care, managing a pandemic is herculean. Affordable and adequate healthcare is a distant dream for all of India's population, but the rural residents have it harder. A chronic shortage of medical professionals further complicates the situation. With poor quality and availability of care, the results of the pandemic in rural India surprised no one.
The three-tier system of healthcare, managed by both the Central and State administration, is another reason for the observed results. For instance, the states were focused on curative care, trying to keep the fatalities low, whereas the central government was engaged in assessing the preventative measures. With proper coordination from both bodies, management of the pandemic, especially in rural areas, would have been seamless and effective. The lack of coordination such as this has also led to disaster before. Public health emergencies, including everything from malnutrition to tuberculosis, add to the challenges that the Indian healthcare system has not tackled and poses another large-scale threat in the near future.
It needs to be emphasised that COVID-19 posed a special challenge, considering all the healthcare system's shortages. In addition, the general lack of understanding of the pathogen significantly impacted how treatment plans were formulated. Realising that no cure is yet 100% effective on the condition also influenced the strategies implemented and government actions passed. Compared to the strategies taken in better-equipped systems, the Indian preventive approach against COVID-19 was somewhat outdated.
The shortcomings of the healthcare system, in combination with the lockdown strategy on an already suffering economy, snowballed into another hit on the masses. Compared to the urban parts of the country, the dissemination of diseases in rural areas went unchecked. The status of the infected individuals, the route of exposure, and other necessary details were not monitored as closely. This requires special mention because the limited resources available in the rural areas suggested that controlling the spread of the condition in the vicinity would be next to impossible.
The management of the pandemic through the rural healthcare system showed that rural India still needs improvements on numerous fronts. Untrained staff, inefficient handling of patients, and lack of sufficient personnel and equipment for a largely rural community are some areas that require immediate attention. The government also needs to allocate resources to educate medical professionals in managing outbreaks of infectious diseases. The general population could also use some training to navigate emergencies such as a pandemic. A strong surveillance system to watch the spread of diseases and the status of the patients and monitor the fatalities is another way to improve the system.
This is a tall ask for a country like India that is still getting around to building a strong healthcare system, but this is what the country needs.