Hospitalizations in India soared over the past few months due to the emergence of the post-vaccine delta variant of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19). Many that survived their ordeals were left having to figure out how to pay off their medical debts. Faced with no other alternative, they turned to crowdfunding.
Many Indians do not have health insurance, which would have helped many pay off at least part of their medical debts. The country’s extreme lockdowns have also devastated the Indian economy. This has brought millions to the brink of financial calamity. (Related: Coronavirus lays bare the fact that Americans don’t save and are NEVER prepared for financial disruptions.)
Indians have to beg to pay for hospital bills
Supraja Reddy Yeruva, 27, from the city of Hyderabad in the south-central state of Telangana, began showing symptoms of COVID-19 right at the tail end of her pregnancy. While she was giving birth to her second child, a boy, in June, she was unable to breathe properly.
She soon contracted a severe lung infection and was admitted into a private hospital’s intensive care unit. A month on, and she is still in there.
Her husband, Vijaya Yeruva, 35, with their six-year-old daughter and newborn son, was left scrambling to pay the hefty medical bill of nearly six million rupees ($80,816). This amount is still rising.
Vijaya is an engineer with a steady monthly income of nearly $3,000. Despite this income, which makes him solidly middle class in India, he was still forced to rely on crowdfunding after he used up his health insurance, maxed out all of his credit cards and borrowed all that he could from the bank.
“I worked hard to support my family and never asked anyone for help,” said Vijaya. “Even now, I’m embarrassed to tell people about this fundraiser.”
Vijaya is contemplating selling all of his assets and even his house to pay for the rest of his wife’s treatment.
“It will take years for things to go back to normal, but I want to make sure our kids have their mother.”
Similar stories can be heard all over India. Anil Sharma’s 24-year-old son, Saurav, was admitted to a private hospital in northwest New Delhi for more than two months due to COVID-19. He even had to be put on a ventilator.
Sharma exhausted his family’s savings. He had to take out bank loans and borrow money from friends and relatives. But even this was not enough to pay for his son’s treatment. In the end, he had to turn to an Indian crowdfunding website.
Sharma said he has paid more than $54,000 in medical bills. The money he borrowed from friends and the bank paid for $26,000. The crowdfunding provided the remaining $28,000. He said he has never experienced this kind of debt in his life.
“He was struggling for his life and we were struggling to provide him an opportunity to survive,” said Sharma. “I was a proud father – and now I have become a beggar.”
Saurav was discharged in late July. He is still weak, but he is recovering. He needs physiotherapy to build up his weakened muscles. He needs to be cared for by a nurse and he has a long list of medications. It will take weeks before he fully recovers.
Sharma and the rest of his family should be celebrating, but their joy has been tempered by a mountain of debt that piled up while he was in the hospital.
“Our first priority was to save him,” said Sharma. “Now we will need to figure out the rest.”
Indians turn to crowdfunding due to lack of economic opportunities
Sharma used to be a well-paid marketing professional. But his job was axed due to the lockdown. According to economists, India has lost more than 12 million salaried positions since March 2020, when the lockdown began.
When Sharma set up the crowdfunding campaign for his son, he had not seen a paycheck in more than 18 months.
According to the Pew Research Center, the lockdown drove 32 million Indians out of the middle class, defined as those earning between $10 to $20 a day. It further estimated that the crisis increased the number of India’s poorest by as much as 75 million. This is defined as those who earned $2 or less per day.
For many Indians, crowdfunding has turned into the only viable substitute for health insurance, government support and good honest work. Indians already pay about 63 percent of their medical expenses out-of-pocket. This rate is typical of many poor and developing countries with inadequate health insurance and government services.
“In many cases, crowdfunding became an alternative safety net to fill the existing gaps in the healthcare system,” said Ravina Banze and Irfan Bashir, co-authors of a book about the effects of crowdfunding in India.
Experts said the three biggest crowdfunding sites in India – Ketto, Milaap and Give India – have raised more than $161 million with the help of 2.7 million donors since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Between April and June of this year, around 40 percent of the campaigns in Ketto were for COVID-19-related hospitalization costs, or more than 4,500 campaigns.
Learn more about how the lockdown has devastated the lives of tens of millions of Indians by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.
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