(The article originally appeared on Livemint on 7th July, 2021)
Mansukh Mandaviya was appointed as the new union health minister after a mega reshuffle held in the Union Cabinet on Wednesday. Mandaviya along with the crucial Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has also been given the charge of Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi led NDA government.
Failing the litmus test of managing covid-19 pandemic in the country, union health ministry saw an upfront change on Wednesday with Mandaviya replacing Harsh Vardhan. With portfolio of health and family welfare and Chemicals and Fertilizers, Mandaviya will have the first and foremost responsibility to deal with ongoing covid-19 pandemic in terms of healthcare services and making availability of medical equipment and medicines.
A Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, Mandaviya is an MA in Political Science from Bhavnagar University. In terms of healthcare, he has shown an active participation in Pradhan Mantri Bharatiya Jan Aushadhi Pariyojana (PMBJP). He was also recently honoured by the UNICEF and others for his contribution to women’s menstrual hygiene. On 5th July 2016, he sworn in as a Minister of State for Road Transport & Highways, Shipping and Chemical & Fertilizers in Government of India. He was re-selected for the Second Term of Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha during March, 2018.
The portfolio of health minister brings the newest of challenges especially during the ongoing health crisis, when the already crumbling healthcare system has been stretched to its limits. At the same time, the country has already missed several health targets and staring at the third wave that is ready to further wreck the healthcare infrastructure. Harsh Vardhan’s replacement from the key and the nodal ministry handling the ongoing covid-19 crisis comes at a time when India is staring at the third wave of pandemic.
The health ministry drew flak for every decision taken during the course of the pandemic ranging from mismanagement of the second wave, allocation of covid-19 vaccines to states to running nationwide vaccination drive. Despite several clarifications from the minister, doubts always prevailed over functioning of the ministry.
In an indirect admission of the failure of handling deadly covid-19 pandemic, Modi government changed the health minister for heavy lifting of crucial health ministry at current juncture. Removing Ashwini Kumar Chaubey, Dr Bharati Pravin Pawar has been given the charge of Minister of State in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
“In a way, the government wants to send out a message that the minister who should be leading from the forefront during covid-19 pandemic, didn’t perform and has been shown the door. The government also removed the health minister to wash out the blot it had due to mismanagement of the second wave of covid-19 pandemic and to safeguard its international image,” said Sanjay Kumar Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
“India has drawn criticism for mishandling the health crisis and all the countries including developing nations had to offer help during that time. Harsh Vardhan has been made a scapegoat and the Modi government has tried to secure votes in the next election,” he said.
Under continuous currents since inception of the pandemic, healthcare landscape of the country needs rigorous work and healing touch through a new union health minister and the ministers of state.
“There was laxity for which the second wave took such a hideous form. The election, part politics and media ‘s attention to all those exchanges completely ignored the fact that the second wave was gradually arising. Then when it actually took the gravest form there was no preparation,” said Arup Mitra, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi.
“The last year’s infrastructure was in doldrums. Complete chaos and mismanagement are the main reasons. But for all this the health minister alonecannot be held responsible. It is the responsibility of the entire government machinery,” said Mitra. Mitra argued that negligence can’t be attributed to a single person.
With covid-19 cases touching as high as 4.5 lakhs a day in April, healthcare system of the country collapsed completely. With several patients becoming critically ill requiring tertiary hospital care, the number of beds, oxygen facilities and medical manpower fell severely short leaving many devoid of healthcare services. While several died, majority had harrowing times, centre and state governments kept on passing the buck to each other. Union health ministry attracted major criticism over the health crisis.
“The health ministry clearly failed in owning up the management of this crisis and I hope the new minister would take better control of the situation and better prepare the country to face future waves of covid-19,” Dr Rijo John, Economist and Health Policy Analyst said.