India’s Brand New Healthcare Cure: Age-Old Medicine

With the price of western medicine proving too costly for large swathes of India’s population, traditional medicine is being billed as the new financial and medical cure-all.

Herbal medicine vendor
Herbal medicine vendor
Julien Bouissou

NEW DELHI - Still woefully behind in matters of public healthcare for its people, India has a surprising new policy for playing catch-up in the country's rural areas: its own traditional medicine. Last month, the first nationally recognized Indian medicine research center, The Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, was inaugurated in Bangalore.

"Our country cannot blindly follow the western model of five star healthcare," Sam Pitroda -- adviser to the prime minister and director of the National Innovation Council, declared after the inauguration. "We have to go back to our roots and develop an economically viable, sustainable model of healthcare that includes our own traditional treatments."

As a result, the country has begun to rediscover the benefits of its own traditional forms of medicine. After having opted exclusively for the western model of allopathic medicine, as well as having developed a large generic drugs industry, India now finds itself in a paradoxical situation: as it fills its cities with luxury hospitals catering primarily for "medical tourists' from abroad, doctors are deserting the countryside and their local communities.

Spending no more than 1.1% of its state budget on healthcare –- one of the lowest percentages in the world -- the government leaves the majority of its citizens to cover their medical costs themselves. Since only 10% of Indians have health insurance, the result is that there are serious inequalities in heath service access among the different sections of the population.

For India's poorest, child mortality stands at 8% for those under five years of age, as opposed to 3% for its wealthier citizens. In the state of Kerala in southern India, which enjoys one of the country's highest levels of literacy, life expectancy is currently 74 years. But in India's huge central state, Madhya Pradesh, life expectancy drops to just 56 years.

6500 plant varieties

Traditional medicine is seen as a way of closing this gap, by offering less expensive treatments that everyone can have access to. Why bother, supporters of this trend say, spending money on pills when villages can have their own Ayurvedic gardens, and when the necessary know-how in terms of traditional medicine is readily available on-site?

But traditional herbal medicine is not practiced only in the countryside: its appeal has extended to most of the big cities. The recent discovery in India of multi-drug resistant bacteria (strains carrying the antibiotic resistant NDM-1 gene) has also contributed to reviving people's interest in herbal remedies. Advocates of traditional cures say herbal medicine can help stem the excessive and inappropriate use of antibiotics, which drives the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

"In urgent cases, or for certain illnesses, allopathic medicine is still the most appropriate method of treatment. But for preventive care, or for certain mental disorders, we think traditional approaches like yoga is what people need," explains Darshan Shankar, president of the Ayurveda Institute. All signs today point to India moving towards a system of ‘integrative medicine," which combines allopathic treatments with traditional cures. "We are witnessing a paradoxical situation: while Indian patients are showing a lot of interest for traditional medicines, our health system is incapable of meeting their expectations in any substantial way, whether in terms of research or training," Shankar says.

In 2003, the Indian Ministry of Health opened its very own department devoted to the development of traditional medicines, like yoga or Avuryeda. Its mission is to train practitioners, fund research and monitor the quality of treatments provided in the field. The government also wants to prevent foreign pharmaceutical companies from patenting traditional herbal Indian remedies, which currently use more than 6500 plant varieties, as well as minerals and animal products, like the glandular secretions of the musk deer.

The government has already registered around 100,000 pharmacological reference books. "We want to be the ones promoting the Indian system of medicine, introducing it to the world," explains Rajinde Sood from the Indian Health Ministry.

According to statistics, there were 3,371 clinics capable of providing traditional treatments and some 750,000 doctors registered in the field in 2008. But some of these doctors lack formal training in traditional medicine. The Public Accounts Committee severely criticized the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM) last March, after discovering that some rural health centers – a number of which are traditional medicine clinics – were being used as grain stores, cattle sheds or ignored the most basic rules of hygiene.

Photo - Prince Roy

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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