How patents are anti-poor and are harming essentials like healthcare worldwide

Come Diwali, the greatest Indian celebration, and a considerable number of people all over the country get burns and many die of burn-related injuries. One doesn’t realise the gravity of the situation till tragedy strikes at one’s doorstep. This Diwali, a small diya kept near a staircase, in twenty seconds straight, had my aunt (my brother-in-law and fellow TSI columnist Prashanto Bannerjee’s mother) in its deadly wrap. She, being a neighbour since my childhood, is perhaps closer to me than are any of my real aunts. Despite her saree being made of cotton, and despite my brother-in-law noticing the burning saree instantly and putting off the flames with buckets of water within twenty seconds, she got 65% burns – and at 72 years of age, that is dangerous... very dangerous! When we reached Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi – where we finally admitted her – the doctor told us that if she had been of Prashanto’s age, 36, he would have given her only a 20% chance of survival with the 3rd degree burns that she had. But then, there’s a small background story to all this. Prashanto’s mother was actually taken initially to Max Super Speciality Hospital. To our surprise, we were told by Max doctors to get her admitted somewhere else since they didn’t treat burn injuries… The quick research we did after our visit to Max gave us a shocking statistic. In Delhi, the capital of India, there are only two hospitals capable of treating burn injuries. Other hospitals in fact don’t even admit burn victims! And being Diwali, Safdarjung Hospital, the only hospital other than Apollo for burn victims, was expected to be very crowded. If Delhi has only two, then you can imagine how many hospitals does the average Indian city have that handle burn injuries – none!

Anyway, once she was admitted to the ICU at Apollo and we got talking to the doctor, and wondered how in such a big city such few beds were available for burn victims, his answer shocked us further. He said that a burn injury is a poor man’s injury and ergo didn’t have many hospitals as takers. Before this incident, it had never struck me that this was the case. It should have been quite obvious actually: it is the poor woman – and not really the man – who gets burnt when her saree catches fire from the kitchen stove kept on the floor. And when such poor women get burnt, it matters less whether they survive or not. Therefore, no hospital has been interested in investing in a burn injury center! What was sadder was that when I researched on the net and read about the tremendous advancement of medicines for burn injuries (that have reduced chances of mortality to negligible even in severe burn cases), I realized that we still lived in a country that, despite the spectacular international medical advancements, continues to have the highest number of people dying of completely curable burns.

Apollo, of course, is a very rich man’s place. And they were quite forthright about that – treating Prashanto’s mother would cost up to Rs.90,000 per night, with medicines alone costing up to Rs.60,000 per night. And these are the per day costs of treating a ‘poor man’s injury’! No wonder, a treatment center for a poor man has barely any takers. In fact, even if your nearby hospital were to start a burn injury center, chances are that even the rich man wouldn’t be able to bear the expenses for a two-month treatment, forget the middle income or poor man. And that’s what makes me write this piece on patents today.

I have always been very excited about movements like copyleft (the anti-copyright movement) and have believed that one of the best things that the internet has done is to open the doors to zillions of gigabytes of knowledge-ware to mankind free of cost – from software to top end research studies. And I so hope that patent laws across the world too are drastically changed soon for the betterment of mankind. In fact, in his book called Sex, Science and Profits, Professor Terrence Kealey argues how there is absolutely no need to give patent rights to anyone for 30 years, when in reality the costs of research studies with high profits can be recovered back in three years on an average. By exploiting such a mindless number of years of patent rights, companies fool us on the costs of research and rob the poor worldwide of their dues. Not just that, unduly long-term patents keep essential medicines extremely expensive and away from the reach of the poor – and patents also additionally slow down innovation. Every technology and formula kept patented for 30 years consequently means there would be much slower progress on further extensions to that technology or formula due to the patent-gifted monopoly. History is evidence that the moment the patent right over a technology has concluded, the progression on that technology has become extremely fast compared to the past years of hardly any innovation – like in the case of the steam engine.

It’s time that we come up with a humane formula for deciding the number of years that companies can be granted patent rights – or we cut the patent protection period drastically short to suit the interests of the world and especially its poor, instead of keeping patents mindlessly favourable towards the rich corporations and their profits. And while the time period of patent rights for every other sphere can still be debated over, in the arena of medical sciences, this must be changed with immediate effect. Additionally, policies similar to the Indian National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 – which puts a cap on the prices of 652 popular medicines – must be notified with an immediate effect and should necessarily be expanded to include not just life-saving high cost patented medical drugs, but also high cost medical treatments and operations.

In the meanwhile, as Prashanto’s mother fights a brave battle on her 30th day in hospital – thanks to one of the few beds on Diwali night we could pay for, while many other not so fortunate souls couldn’t – friends, when anyone you know of goes through an unfortunate fire accident and gets burnt, remember this: just rushing her to the nearest hospital might be of no use – for it’s considered a poor man’s injury for which your nearest hospital, even if it’s a Max, may have no treatment facility.

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