There is a famous saying, “bad examples serve as good warning signs”. The nation was hoping that after witnessing and experiencing the effects of a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, N-95 masks and HAZMAT suits in the harsh, dreaded summer of March-April 2020, the Central government would take corrective steps and not repeat the mistake of ending up with a lack of supply of oxygen, medicines and of prioritising exports over domestic demands in terms of vaccine availability. However, looking now at the heart-rending and urgent appeals for oxygen supplies and vaccines, and the snail’s pace of the vaccination drive and reports of vaccine shortages, it is clearly déjà vu in terms of it being sheer mishandling by the event management-obsessed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
However, amid the bad news of rising COVID-19 deaths and dipping resources, India’s young population can heave a sigh of relief that the ruling regime has finally considered the suggestion of the Opposition to look at universal vaccination and woken up to the reality that 80% of the population below 45 years of age, who constitute a large segment of the COVID-19 infected citizenry, needs protection. But, a few questions remain unanswered: why did it take so long to give the green signal for a ‘vaccine for all’ policy? Why do the scales remain tilted in favour of exports over domestic supply? Why did the wise men and women at the helm of affairs not ensure the acquisition and the manufacture of the arsenal of equipment and keep them ready to combat the current catastrophe? Had the government paid heed to saner voices and prepared itself during the last one year for domestic capacity augmentation, may be India would have been in a better position to face the second wave. Now, the bottlenecks in the domestic supply of medicines, oxygen and vaccines have become a major constraint in the fight against COVID-19. In the absence of a steady stream of these key essentials, the ‘liberalised’ vaccination drive runs the risk of becoming another victim of sketchy implementation by the BJP government.
India versus the world
To avoid this, decision makers must hunker down to give wings to the vaccination drive and ensure maximum factory output to achieve maximum coverage. According to information available in the public domain, India lags behind the world average of doses administered per one lakh population. Out of the population of 136 crore Indians, approximately only one crore have got both doses. With less than 8% of the population vaccinated so far, India is way behind in terms of vaccination speed and coverage. Israel has vaccinated 61.8% of its population while it is 39.2% in America. Countries such as the Seychelles and Bhutan have vaccinated 67.4% and 62% of their population, respectively. The vaccination percentage in India is behind even Morocco, where 12.6% of the population have been vaccinated. To make matters worse, several State governments, including worst-hit Maharashtra, are facing shortages; in fact, vaccination has been halted at several centres across the country. This needs to change if India has to come out of the tailspin induced by the COVID-19 storm.
Engage with the U.S.
The vaccine manufacturers, specifically the Serum Institute of India, has already raised a red flag over the shortage of raw materials to produce the vaccine due to export ban imposed by the United States Government invoking the U.S. Defense Production Act, 1950. Last year, India exported more than 50 million hydroxychloroquine tablets to the U.S. Therefore, the Ministry of External Affairs should not waste any more time in getting the U.S. embargo lifted by encashing the goodwill of medicine diplomacy and showing no hesitancy in seeking a return of the favour. An ‘out of stock’ vaccine scenario is not only weakening India’s fight against COVID-19 but is also leading to the erosion of public confidence in the government’s containment strategy.
In addition, for the purposes of ensuring that young India and the less privileged sections of our society are not deprived of vaccination, financial deterrents need to be removed. First, States are struggling with their finances and lakhs of crores of their Goods and Services Tax dues are pending with the Centre. These dues should be cleared so that direct purchasing from the manufacturers does not have an additional burden. Second, a pricing cap should be imposed considering that unemployment is at a 45-year-high, affecting youth, and free vaccination should be made available to the weaker sections of society.
Vaccine diplomacy can wait
Another aspect which requires a rethink is India’s global commitment to vaccine, medicine diplomacy vis-à-vis our domestic requirements. While it is true that the pandemic of the magnitude of COVID-19 has expanded the role of nation-states to fight the virus at the global level, the national priorities and lives of their own people demand the highest priority of governments to focus on domestic needs. As per the Government’s reply in the Rajya Sabha (March 17, 2021), a total of 7.06 crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines were supplied to the States and Union Territories; whereas, during the same period, 5.96 crore doses of vaccines were exported to 74 countries. According to the latest figure of the Ministry of External Affairs, 6.60 crore doses of vaccines have been exported out of India, as on April 19, 2021, which includes supplies in the form of ‘grants-in-aid’, commercial sales and under GAVI’s COVAX facility. Similarly, during the last six months, 11 lakh remdesivir injections were exported without considering the imminent domestic demand at a time when scientists had warned about a severe second wave in India. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan made a statement in Parliament that vaccines are not being exported ‘at the expense of Indians’ — but the numbers speak for themselves. Clearly, it is time to balance out the equation. By not addressing the supply issue seriously, euphemistically speaking, the BJP government is locking up the fire brigade stations despite seeing the wildfire spread. Vaccine diplomacy can and should wait till the entire population of India is vaccinated.
Last, and most importantly, the government machinery needs to shift gear from fighting the political Opposition to fighting COVID-19. By ridiculing the constructive suggestions of Opposition leaders such as Dr. Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi and then implementing them the very next day only exposes the BJP’s brand of low politics. For the sake of upholding the spirit of cooperative federalism, the Centre must shed its policy of “credit is mine and crisis is yours” and follow the motto of “we shall fight it together”. True “Utsav” will only be witnessed when a majority of Indians stand vaccinated and no patient dies as a result of a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and/or unaffordable injections.
Jaiveer Shergill is a Supreme Court lawyer and National Spokesperson, the Indian National Congress