COVID-19 continues to test the resolve of nations – their institutions, leaders and people. India too is in the thick of this global fight. While COVID-19 is unique in many ways, India has faced public health challenges of similar (even greater) scale and severity.
When India transformed into an independent nation, Malaria was on a killing spree. 75 million Indians tested positive for the disease and around 8 lakh Indians were dispatched to their graves. During this period, independent India’s first cabinet came into existence; Rajakumari Amrit Kaur, long time freedom fighter and Gandhi’s close aide took charge as India’s first Minister of Health.
Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons
Kaur soon got to work and took on the dreaded Malaria challenge. She put in place mitigation strategies and oversaw the implementation of an aggressive anti-malaria public campaign. Her efforts are believed to have prevented 4 lakh deaths and she led India into an ‘Eradication Era’: between the 1950s to the 1960s, cases dropped to as low as 64,000.
Kaur did her schooling in England and obtained university education in Oxford. A new life began when she returned to India – she joined Gandhi in his ashram near Bombay and served as his secretary for nearly sixteen years and took an active part in the freedom movement. In the mid-1940s, Kaur joined the Constituent Assembly that drafted India’s Constitution and was one of the 15 women members.
When Nehru offered Kaur the Union Health Portfolio in his cabinet, Gandhi urged Kaur to accept – to which she quipped: ‘Why are you turning me out?’ She ended up accepting the ministership becoming the only woman member of the cabinet. She would go on to manage India’s public health for a decade.
As a gift, Kaur received cases of Penicillin from the Canadian Red Cross in October 1947.
Image Credits: Wikipedia Commons
The All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), considered as India’s premier medical sciences centre, is currently playing a critical role in building medical capacity and training to battle COVID-19. Guess who played a key role in setting it up? Rajkumari Amrit Kaur herself!
In 1956, while the Rajya Sabha was debating the AIIMS Bill 1956, she expressed her vision for AIIMS to her fellow parliamentarians:
‘..a unique Institute, and to be able to give our people – the young men and women doctors – the opportunities for study for post graduate education that they have not uptil now been able to have in their country. I want this to be something wonderful, of which India can be proud, and I want India to be proud of it.’
After its setting up, Kaur served as its President for seven years. As a part of the governance board of AIIMS, she played a key role in shaping AIIMS as India’s premier medical institution.
Kaur’s work in public health-related issues did not stop after she retired from the Union Government. Due to her success in leading India’s fight against Malaria, the World Health Organization (WHO), commissioned her to be one of their envoys to implement its Malaria Eradication Programme.
Recently, Time Magazine chose Kaur as the 1947 Woman of the Year. On 6th February 1964, Kaur passed away bringing an end to her spectacular career in public service.