Our frontline health-care workers deserve our fulsome congratulations for crossing the milestone of 100 crore COVID-19 vaccine doses. They, along with our scientists, researchers, medical professionals, and vaccine manufacturers, have heroically overcome multiple obstacles in the quest to protect our citizens from COVID-19. Thanks to their efforts, our vaccination drive has picked up pace after the initial months of delay, indecision, and confusion.
This milestone also marks the triumph of science and of India’s research and manufacturing infrastructure built and nurtured over decades. It is opportune to recollect that it is the Patents Act, 1970, that contributed hugely to the development of our drugs and pharmaceutical industry, which has enabled India to become a globally respected manufacturer of vaccines.
The shock of the second wave
This jubilant mood though must not give way to complacency. It is still fresh in our memory how the Prime Minister told the Chief Ministers early in April that “we defeated COVID-19 without vaccines”. Just months earlier, before the disastrous second wave triggered by premature claims of success and unregulated large gatherings, punctured these claims, he had boasted at the World Economic Forum how well prepared India was to cope with the pandemic, defying the dire predictions of several international experts. With complacency firmly in command, vaccine procurement was not prioritised and crucial efforts, including ensuring supply of oxygen in case of a surge of infections, were neglected. The public also dropped its guard believing the Government’s reassurance. As we all know, disastrous consequences followed, and lakhs of Indians paid with their lives.
Even as the Prime Minister has heralded in his usual self-promotional style the 100-crore vaccination mark — even though there are only two countries in the world that are called upon to reach this level of coverage and we were not the first to do so — the harsh truth is that the second wave was a colossal tragedy that could have been averted had the Government not let down the people of India. During that horrific, difficult time, the Prime Minister and the Home Minister were nowhere to be seen or heard but reappeared only when the situation improved. This was a repeat of their performance during the first wave, when, after the sudden announcement of the lockdown, lakhs of migrant workers were abandoned, left to themselves to trudge thousands of kilometres home to their villages. Untold numbers perished along the way.
The nation has not forgotten the heart-rending images of people gasping for breath and of families desperately trying to obtain oxygen and hospital beds. Their enormous suffering is seared in our memory through pictures of bodies scattered in riverbanks and floating on rivers. The Government is yet to give an accurate count of the number of people who died as a result of its negligence. Callously, the Government has yet to provide compensation to bereaved families. Instead, the powers that be have stubbornly doubled down on efforts to divert attention and pass on the blame to others. The Government clearly hopes that denial will cause people to absolve it of responsibility for their miseries.
We applaud science, but we know that our vaccination drive would have rolled out faster if the Government had respected scientific breakthroughs in other countries and placed adequate orders for their vaccines. Indeed, the situation would have been mitigated had the Government had the foresight to place orders with India’s own leading vaccine manufacturer. The Government’s initial “smart” vaccination strategy asserted that “there would be no requirement for vaccination of the whole population of the country”. Thus, India, the biggest manufacturer of vaccines in the world — a status achieved long before May 2014 — only fully vaccinated 0.5% of its population ahead of the second wave.
The intensity of the second wave demonstrated how wrong the Government’s vaccination strategy was. But the blunders were compounded as the Government rolled out a procurement policy that had cash-strapped States competing with each other over vaccine supply. Sustained pressure from State governments, the Supreme Court of India, Opposition parties, the scientific community, and civil society helped tide over some missteps.
Unfortunately, the Government continues to treat the fight against COVID-19 as an event management exercise. The Prime Minister’s birthday saw a record two crore inoculations, partly achieved by hoarding vaccines in the run-up to the day to shore up numbers for the ‘event’. Such vanity is inexcusable. It demonstrates that India has the capacity to vaccinate at a faster rate, but for some inexplicable reason the Government has chosen not to. The Government should answer a simple question: if two crore can be vaccinated on one chosen day, why not every day?
The gaps in vaccination
In the nine months since we started the vaccination drive, we have only been able to fully vaccinate less than a third of our adult population. Countries with comparable COVID-19 figures and even those with smaller or poorer economies have performed much better. Even if manufacturers ramp up production rapidly, our vaccination rate will fail to catch up. In the first three weeks of October it was 50 lakh doses a day. This rate will have to be tripled to inoculate all eligible adults by year-end.
Not only that, the gap between the proportion of the population that has got at least one dose and two doses is widest in India. This gap is likely a result of domestic supply falling short of the demand. The Government refuses to explore diverse methods, including compulsory licensing, to raise our domestic production of vaccines. Moreover, the Government is yet to roll out a plan to inoculate our children who could be particularly vulnerable to future waves. We must protect our children urgently so they can go back to school. India has had one of the longest school shutdowns worldwide and the damage to their education and growth has been incalculable.
We are also concerned about people’s immunity waning over time in spite of having been vaccinated or infected. But the Government has dealt with queries about booster shoots with complete opaqueness. It must work out a plan, based on scientific advice, for booster shots, like other countries have done. Most importantly, scientific procedures need to be adhered to during approval and procurement of vaccines. Truth and transparency should be the hallmark of government actions and communication with the public to avoid any vaccine hesitancy.
A shift in policy
The Prime Minister likes to emphasise that vaccines are free, while conveniently forgetting that they have always been free. It is the Bharatiya Janata Party government that moved away from India’s universal free vaccination policy. A significant section of the population was forced to pay for vaccines as government centres ran out of them. Many better-off citizens pooled in money to ensure the poor could get vaccinated. While commendable, this is an indictment of the Government, which shifted its responsibility to citizens and the private sector. Not even 10% of our population can afford to pay for vaccines, yet the Government continues to allocate 25% of vaccines to the private sector. This is unacceptable — resulting in less, not more vaccination.
In May 2021, the Government announced that all eligible Indians would be doubly vaccinated by the end of 2021. This hollow announcement has not been accompanied by either appropriate planning or execution. Experts assert that we will miss this target by at least five to six months. The Government must realise that vaccinating all Indians as quickly as possible is linked to not only the health of our citizens but also the wealth of our nation.
The floundering economy can be turned around if we can drive away the dark clouds of COVID-19. That requires us to ramp up the pace of the roll out of vaccines to all, completely free, including to our children. That is our best hope to protect our citizens, put our children back in school, revive our markets and have a cascading positive impact across sectors, thus ushering in the festive season and the new year with genuine optimism.
Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Indian National Congress