Tue | Oct 19, 2021

Pandemic leaves Indians mired in massive medical debts

Published:Tuesday | July 27, 2021 | 12:07 AM
Anil Sharma breaks down while talking to the Associated Press after visiting his son, Saurav, who is being treated for COVID-19 at a private hospital, in New Delhi, India on July 1. Life is tentatively returning to normal in India as coronavirus cases fall
Anil Sharma breaks down while talking to the Associated Press after visiting his son, Saurav, who is being treated for COVID-19 at a private hospital, in New Delhi, India on July 1. Life is tentatively returning to normal in India as coronavirus cases fall. But millions are embroiled in a nightmare of huge piles of medical bills.

NEW DELHI (AP):

As coronavirus cases ravaged India this spring, Anil Sharma visited his 24-year-old son, Saurav, at a private hospital in northwest New Delhi every day for more than two months. In May, as India’s new COVID-19 cases broke global records to reach 400,000 a day, Saurav was put on a ventilator.

The sight of the tube running into Saurav’s throat is seared in Sharma’s mind. “I had to stay strong when I was with him, but immediately after, I would break down as soon as I left the room,” he said.

Saurav is home now, still weak and recovering. But the family’s joy is tempered by a mountain of debt that piled up while he was sick.

Life has been tentatively returning to normal in India as new coronavirus cases have fallen. But millions are embroiled in a nightmare of huge piles of medical bills. Most Indians don’t have health insurance and costs for COVID-19 treatment have them drowning in debt.

Sharma exhausted his savings on paying for an ambulance, tests, medicines, and an ICU bed. Then he took out bank loans.

As the costs mounted, he borrowed from friends and relatives. Then he turned to strangers, pleading online for help on Ketto, an Indian crowdfunding website. Overall, Sharma said he has paid over $50,000 in medical bills.

The crowdfunding provided $28,000, but another $26,000 is borrowed money he needs to repay, a kind of debt he has never faced before.

“He was struggling for his life and we were struggling to provide him an opportunity to survive,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “I was a proud father – and now I have become a beggar.”

The pandemic has devastated India’s economy, bringing financial calamity to millions at the mercy of its chronically underfunded and fragmented healthcare system. Experts say such costs are bound to hinder an economic recovery.

“What we have is a patchwork quilt of incomplete public insurance and a poor public-health system. The pandemic has shown just how creaky and unsustainable these two things are,” said Vivek Dehejia, an economist who has studied public policy in India.

Even before the pandemic, healthcare access in India was a problem.