By Gyan Pathak
Politics on vaccines and vaccination in India is now a reality. The statement made by the Chief Minister of Delhi that the state can vaccinate all its people within three months if allowed by the Centre and if vaccines are made available, is indicative of some sort of politics being played on the people of India. People are kept on tenterhooks, and are swinging between hope and frustration, on account of very slow rate of vaccination due to hosts of reasons ranging from incapacity of our healthcare system, vaccine hesitancy, and of course the politics. In the meantime spike in new COVID-19 cases has threatened a second wave in the country.
Just before the launch of vaccination drive Prime Minister himself had hinted at some sort of politics while warning Chief Ministers of some groups is action might derail India’s vaccine drive, though he did not reveal the identities of any of such groups. Much water has flowed in the Yamuna between the warning of the Prime Minister then and the latest statement of the Chief Minister of Delhi now. The speed of inoculation remained painfully slow, despite India’s deployment of its two vaccines – Covishield of Serum Institute of India (SII) and Covaxin of Bharat Biotech. The first is developed in association with Oxford, and produced abroad by the name Oxford-AstraZeneca. Covaxin is purely indigenous.
In the very early stages, both the companies indulged in trading charges on their efficaciousness. CEO of SII alleged that Covaxin is as ‘safe as water’ and the MD of Bharat Biotech hit back and said, “It is easy to target Indian scientists”. However, the Union government gave both the vaccines ‘emergency use approval’, the Covaxin with a with a trial mode tag. It was alleged that the government may have acted in haste, and the sentiment was echoed by experts and some opposition politicians suggesting that the Union government had ignored scientific protocols to give the nod because of the Atmanirbhar Bharat slogan
. By the time, the vaccination drive was launched on January 16, “vaccine hesitancy” was already created and flared up to a great extent that is still keeping inoculation drive too slow to achieve the target within time. It is despite the fact that adverse effects of the vaccines in India has been almost negligible, and the death reported after vaccination has not been conclusively linked to any of the vaccines. Some European countries had recently put on hold the use of Oxford-AstraZeneca for safety concerns including blood clotting, but an emergency meeting of the WHO and European Agencies has again recommended its use. AEFI committee of India has, after deliberation on the issue, has declared that there is not any safety concerns relating to the vaccines. Despite all these, “vaccine hesitancy” is still prevalent among the people.
Additionally, the country as a whole did not have the capacity to produce, supply, and inoculate all its people, and therefore a plan was put in place for vaccination in phases, and rules framed. The plan has some inherent shortcomings, such as the eligibility criteria for being inoculated. The whole plan by design was made to slow the pace of vaccination so that the country’s healthcare system, production, and supply logistics could handle it in most efficient manner. As we know, one coat does not fit all, the plan did not sufficiently considered the individual capacity of the state, such as Delhi, having a good healthcare system with large numbers. Chief Minister of Delhi is thus not off the mark when he said the rules of vaccination and the insufficient supply has held up the state in vaccinating all its people within three months the capacity for which is already there. However, for most of the states there is still capacity restraint.
In the meantime, the government of India has allowed exports of vaccines, some of them are gift to some nations. It has been branded as “vaccine diplomacy”. It may be mentioned here that India is the vaccine hub of the world supplying almost 60 per cent of the vaccines globally. Critics of export of COVID-19 vaccines from India are alleging that Modi government is ignoring Indians by sending large quantity of vaccines abroad while we need those for our people at home. Politics is played on the issue, but the reality is that we have a mismatch between production and delivery capacities. However, the question stares us, why is the country not enhancing domestic delivery capacity, especially when there is a spike in new COVID-19 reaching three months high about 40,000 infections a day with steeply elevating trajectory? Why the speed of the vaccination cannot be improved over the present level at which, as estimated, would take 10.8 years to vaccinate 70 per cent of India’s population?
The problem of vaccine supply, logistics, and its availability has been partially solved by allowing participation of private hospitals. It is in reality, a strategic shift from government hospitals to private hospitals, which has also been officially declared. We still need sufficient supply of vaccines to inoculate the whole population. Why India should stick to only the two vaccines? Many vaccines are available globally, and the India’s kitty of vaccines may be expanded by facilitating their imports and speeding up their approval process to ensure much more vaccination per day. The promising foreign vaccines, such as Russia’s Sputnik-V having Indian partner, Covax, and others from various countries, may be included in Indian kitty of vaccines, if found efficacious in Indian context.
India must focus on making vaccines available to all its citizens and desist from any narrow politics, since it is the only way we can successfully fight with COVID-19. The centre and states, especially ruled by opposing political parties, must not create hurdles in each other’s way obstructing smooth vaccination of all in shortest possible time. The drive must not be allowed to become the victim of domestic and global politics. (IPA Service)