COVID has exposed deep fissures and fault lines in society and is the subject of discussions these days in corporate board rooms and family dinner tables.  I recently had to travel internationally and was able to observe COVID’s staggering impact on every aspect of the way we live. I had to make arrangements for the COVID PCR test within 72 hours of travel, upload documents and declarations onto a government portal, and take another COVID test on landing. I was sad to see previously bustling airports empty, and learned to keep my double mask on throughout the long journey. The devastating impact on commerce and industry, on the healthcare workforce (70% of whom are women), on the lives and livelihoods of daily wage workers is palpable. Health and disease have been front and center on my radar screen. One of our best friends, a fit and active physician, died a couple months ago after a long battle with COVID.  All I could think of from Jan – March 2021 was how to get the vaccine – I was obsessed. 

I work on non-communicable disease prevention through Arogya World, the nonprofit I founded 10 plus years ago. In recent times, the lines between non-communicable and communicable diseases are blurring.  We know that underlying NCDs such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity increase serious negative health outcomes from COVID.  We are also learning that perhaps COVID may lead to diabetes.  So much about health and the physiological impact of disease, even today is unknown. 

Healthcare is much more than sick care

Health to me means so much more than absence of disease. I agree fully with the WHO definition which was adopted in 1948 and has not been amended since – Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. To me health means living a full, productive and vital life.  And thriving and prospering throughout one’s life. 

Health is important at all ages. We want to celebrate every child’s 5th birthday, help women have safe pregnancies and healthy normal birth weight babies, shape the lifestyle habits of adolescents, improve the heart health of 50-year-olds, and help our elderly cope with dignity with their increasing infirmity.  Health for me goes beyond fitness, eating right, and physical health – it also includes mental health, which is the biggest long-term fall-out from COVID.  Mental illness really is a matter of chemistry, of imbalances in the levels of some neurotransmitters – so why is there so much stigma?

And there are huge health inequities in the world. The healthcare experience is genuinely different for the rich and the poor.  COVID brought out the plight and hunger and daily hardships of migrant workers in India, and increased the dialogue on race, gender and inequities in the US.  The concerned global citizen’s conscience has been awakened.  We can’t sit still – we must all use our own spheres of influence and do what we can to reduce these inequities.  What is the point if the world simply went back to where it was before the pandemic? 

Healthy Living – the Critical Need of the Hour

Reflecting on the theme of World Health Day, I ask the question – What can we do to build a fairer and healthier world?  We at Arogya World view it as our responsibility, indeed our legacy, to build a movement around healthy living throughout India. Healthy living is our best tool for fighting two of modern day’s scourges – NCDs and COVID. 

Let’s collaborate to build a fairer and healthier world by leveraging technology so that our current and future generations become more aware and informed about leading healthier lives.

I call on everyone to help us build a world full of Arogya (meaning health in Sanskrit): 

  • Governments –  ensure everyone has living and working conditions conducive to good health, invest in making healthcare accessible, monitor health inequities and increase COVID vaccine coverage, incentivize and mobilize multiple sectors to join hands for NCD prevention at the population level, and please truly partner with civil society and transform India’s cities to Arogya Cities.
  • Companies – help your own employees and families fight COVID, increase workforce resilience by investing in employee health programs, and muster the political will to really tackle mental health in your company   
  • Individuals – adopt and promote healthy lifestyles.

We invite you all to join this movement as citizen champions, NGO partners, private sector experts, CSR donors, and policymakers. With you, we can take NCD prevention through healthy living to the doorsteps of people where they live, learn and work. Reach us at [email protected].