The words ‘health is not valued till sickness comes’ by Thomas Fuller are more relevant today than ever before. A person can only live life to the fullest when in good health, and in the present situation, health is the most prized possession one can have. Health and human rights are closely interrelated, as can be inferred from the various causes that affect the access that one may have to proper healthcare.
The Role of Governments in Healthcare
According to Human Rights Watch, a response to a pandemic that respects the rights of people ensures that people are provided with accurate and up-to-date information about the status, proper access to services, and other resources which are readily available and accessible to everyone equally.
Marginalised people being at an incredibly high risk of infections during a pandemic, governments should ensure that they are provided with adequate resources to take care of themselves and their families. Rules relating to social distancing and quarantine for the infected and potential spreaders raise the importance of enforcing social and economic rights for marginalised people, such as providing stable housing, access to necessities, and employment so that they may take care of the affected members without struggles.
A comprehensive response on the part of the government is essential during a pandemic, and several countries have successfully contained the spread of the coronavirus in the past year. The coordination between the Centre and States is also an essential aspect in enforcing the right to health. Cooperative federalism is a crucial element of the Indian Constitution, and the coordination between the Centre and the states must not impede it. Therefore, the decentralisation of power and increasing funds for healthcare is necessary.
International Statutes on the Right to Health
Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every human has the right to a standard of living that is adequate to care for the health and well-being of his family and himself, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.
The most important international organisation on health, the World Health Organisation, states in its Constitution that the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental human right and must be provided without discrimination. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides that health is an indispensable fundamental right that is important for exercising other human rights.
Assuring Treatment in Healthcare Centres
The COVID-19 crisis has raised questions about the efficiency of the healthcare systems of even the most developed countries. Thus, it is imperative that States increase the spending on healthcare to deal with a global pandemic like this one correctly.
Utilising all possible resources and developing a focused system on treatment and recovery is essential and will allow the governments to understand better how to provide resources that cater to the various demographics. Mobilising resources in private and public sectors will significantly help move towards meeting the substantial national demands for resources that may arise during a pandemic.
The Right to Health in India
Though the Indian Constitution does not expressly provide the right to health, the Directive Principles of State Policy in Part IV provide a basis for it. Articles 39(E), 42 and 47 comprehensively deal with the right to health which the State is directed to provide to the people. In addition to the various international treaties and conventions that bind India to enhance and provide adequate medical services and a minimum standard of universal health care, the Supreme Court has held in several precedents that the State is responsible for the healthcare of its citizens.
The right to health in India being non-justiciable (meaning that one cannot challenge a violation of this right in a court), the Supreme Court brought it under the ambit of Article 21. According to the Court, the right to life under Article 21 does not mean a mere human presence. It makes it possible for every Indian citizen to live with dignity and nobility.
In the case State of Punjab & Ors v Mohinder Singh Chawla, the Supreme Court interpreted the right to health under Article 21, stating that it is fundamental to the right to life and the Constitution must place it on record that the State is obliged to provide health services to its citizens.
In Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Association of India, the Court held that the right to health is an additional fundamental right essential to a dignified and noble life. The Court also expressed that ‘health’ includes an entrance into clinical consideration to fulfil expectations for the everyday comforts of humans.
Application in the Context of COVID-19
From 2009 to 2019, India spent only about 2% of its GDP on public health, which has significantly reduced its ability to provide healthcare to the citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. To add to this, the second wave of the coronavirus has left India debilitated in terms of the availability of medical supplies.
In India, public health infrastructure has long been underfunded, and a constant increase in the population does not help either. A lax attitude towards policy-making has also significantly contributed to the crisis, and the present pandemic has shed some light on the need for a universal healthcare system that takes a holistic approach.
As the Supreme Court said, the State’s constitutional obligations must encourage the Centre and the states to end the long-standing neglect shown towards public health.
Ways to Improve Public Health Infrastructure
In countries such as Sri Lanka, the healthcare system is universally accessible and free of cost, which helped them stay resilient in the face of an overwhelming initial surge in the COVID-19 cases. This model is also followed in several European countries, which allowed them to flatten the curve much earlier than India and the US, which works on a heavily privatised and insurance-driven system but has been unsuccessful in reducing the impact of the coronavirus even after spending about 17% of its GDP on public health infrastructure.
In the present scenario, it would be a good idea to push to increase public capacity in the field of medical infrastructure and take a more proactive approach towards public healthcare strategies. Thousands of people in India do not have access to vaccines and testing facilities due to a lack of education and unfavourable economic conditions. It is vital to ensure that marginalised people have equal access to resources, as do people with education and a stable source of income.
Being a global pandemic, it requires a global response. Countries must work together towards a common goal instead of imposing ineffective travel restrictions and using nationalised policies that have caused tremendous vaccine and medicine shortages. Supporting and helping each other is the need of the hour, and the sooner that countries realise this, the better.
The time has come for India’s legislative body to introduce a Public Health Bill-2020, which will allow governments to deal with unexpected circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This Bill would usher in a new age of healthcare, in which every resident of the country will have access to essential healthcare services after careful consideration.
Author: Bhavana Haridas from NUALS, Kochi.