By Gyan Pathak
In the second stage of the first phase of India’s vaccination drive commencing on March 1, 2021, the vaccines would be available for elders above 60 years of age, and the persons above 45 years with comorbidities in both the government and private hospitals across the country. The vaccines would be available in government facilities free of cost, but the beneficiaries would have to pay the costs at private facilities, the cost of which is yet to be decided. The private sector is being given a larger role in this stage. However, the success of this stage is highly dependent on overcoming the problems of ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and removing the hurdles in easily getting vaccinated.
The announcement of the second stage of vaccination has a special significance in the backdrop of a fresh surge in COVID-19 cases is several states. Emergence of new variants of the virus has put the country on its tow because there is a widespread fear of even reinjection. The states are warned against it and the Union government has sent high-level multi-disciplinary teams to ten states to have fresh look at emerging situation.
In the first stage of vaccination, India had targeted to vaccinate around 3 crore healthcare and frontline workers. The drive was launched on January 16, and at the end of February, ie in one and half months, we could administer only about 1.10 crore doses. Needless to say, our performance is very slow and the country would need at least another three months to cover the target population of this stage. Ironically, the Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javdekar, while announcing the decision of the Union Cabinet to launch the next stage of vaccination from March 1, claimed, “We are one of the fastest countries to achieve this feat.”
As for the second dose, only about 14 lakh had received it by that time ie on February 24. One of the reasons of the slow vaccination was “vaccine hesitancy”, though the beneficiaries were health and frontline workers who possess more medical related information than the common people. This dismal record shows that our system has not been able to overcome the vaccine hesitancy. It is but natural in the next stage, they drive would meet with more difficulty to convince the common people of the safety and security of the vaccines to remove vaccines hesitancy among them.
The second stage of vaccination drive would start at a time when around 1.9 crore health and frontline workers are yet to be vaccinated. The government had to take this decision of launching the second stage without completion of the first stage because they were not coming out in large numbers to get themselves vaccinated and the created facilities were not fully utilized. The decision is good if we think only of the full utilization of the facilities. However, it shows that something is lacking in our efforts that prevented us to complete the first stage of vaccination. The government must sufficiently exert to complete the first stage of inoculating all the health and frontline workers as soon as possible.
The success in the second stage of vaccination needs implementation of the lessons we have learned in implementing the first stage. “Vaccine hesitancy” would come in our way and therefore we need special campaigns to convince the targeted people to get inoculated, either in the government facilities or in the private hospitals. A total of 27 crore persons above the age of 50 and below 50 with comorbidities were to be vaccinated in this stage as per the original plan. Now, it has been decided that all the citizens above 60, which are around 10 crore, would be allowed to get vaccinated, and also the persons above 45 years of age with comorbidities. The change is welcome, though it may increase the number of the targeted group. With additional number of persons to be inoculated may well take more time to complete this phase which may well exceed beyond August. To shorten this time the government would need to speed up the programme.
The vaccine would be available for free at about 10,000-odd government healthcare facilities, the government announcement has said. It discloses that the government has no plan to increase the number. With the same level of facilities we could inoculate only about 1.10 crore in 43 days. The same facilities will now be available for the rest of 1.90 crore health and frontlines workers to be inoculated and also over 30 crore of elder people with or without comorbidities. It would create heavy load on the system that could not prevent long queue of intended beneficiaries.
We have used about 2,000 private medical facilities in the first stage. The second stage would see 10 times increase in their number. The paid facilities to be made available for inoculation at about 20,000 private hospitals will somewhat ease the burden from the government hospitals. However, not increasing the number of government facilities is most likely to create problems for the elderly persons who are not in a position to afford the costs at private hospitals. While the number of such intended beneficiaries are going to increase by 8-10 times, keeping the facilities at the same level as earlier, is certainly a bad decision. Only 12,000 private hospitals could be empanelled on the eve of the launch of the second stage, which is just 60 per cent of the targeted number of the private hospitals. Another matter of great concern is the cost of vaccination in the private hospitals, which the government could not decide before the announcement of the second stage. It is yet to be decided while only about 40 hours are left in the launch. We hope that government would make it affordable. (IPA Service)