By Gyan Pathak
The much awaited May 1 has finally come, but not with the fulfilment of the hope that was generated by the decision of the Union Government to start vaccination of all citizens above 18 years of age. Only six states could so far start the inoculation drive while others reported inability to do so primarily on account of non-availability of vaccine doses in sufficient measure. The ferocity of the COVID-19 touched a new high with over 4 lakh new infections a day, with over 3,500 deaths in the meantime. It unquestionably presents a case of urgent modification in India’s vaccine policy.
Right from the launch of the vaccination drive in on January 16, it has been ridden with numerous shortcomings, which were pointed out by the experts but not heard by the Modi government until their becoming too problematic to handle for them. The policy has been tweaked several times, but on an ad hoc basis. No comprehensive plan was prepared keeping in view all the information available with the government and in the public domain. The government went on deciding whatever they liked or whatever suited them or their real purpose both known and hidden. It resulted in complete failure in containing the spread of the second wave of COVID-19 from February first week. With increasing demand for faster and wider vaccination, geographically or age-wise, the Centre went on telling the people that the vaccination policy aimed at preventing death and overwhelming of health infrastructure, but the policy was an utter failure. It was only after great criticism that the Modi government tweaked the vaccination policy to the present shape which is more dangerous that the earlier shortcomings.
It is just a coincident that India’s vaccine policy in the new shape has been started on the May Day, which has been observed across the country by the working class with protest demonstrations against the Centre’s vaccines policy, which they allege, is in favour of the corporates. Central Trade Unions and other organizations of the working class have demanded immediate withdrawal of what they term as pro-corporate vaccine policy.
There is serious shortage of vaccines, and in the midst of this, the vaccine policy announced by the government puts corporate profits above the precious lives of people, the protesters on May Day claimed. Central Trade Unions said that it was crucial today to strictly regulate, under direct government supervision, the entire vaccination process to ensure that the entire population is vaccinated within a definite time frame. Vaccine production must be urgently scaled up to effectively deal with the shortage.
Central Trade Unions have alleged that the government has succumbed to the profit hungry international drug mafia and liberalised vaccine sales by deregulating prices through a discriminatory process, that too without taking any concrete measures for augmenting availability. States are not given the promised doses of vaccines which has severely affected the first phase of vaccination itself. The new vaccine policy of the Modi government stipulated that the state governments would have to procure the vaccines from the open market with higher price of Rs 400 and Rs 600 per dose as announced by the two vaccine companies in India. They will be thrown into unhealthy competition with each other and also with the private sector hospitals which are also free to procure the vaccines at Rs 600 and Rs 1200. More such notorious announcements are expected to pour in the days to come with the government-corporate nexus. It is atrocious that the Serum Institute has announced Rs 400 per dose of vaccine for the state governments and Rs 600 for private hospitals in India. Covisheild is priced at 1.78 Euro (Rs 160) in Europe and at $4 (Rs 300) in the US and Bangladesh, at Rs.237 in Brazil, at Rs. 226 in UK.
After great criticism, both the companies, SII and Bharat Biotech, have reduced their prices to Rs 300 and Rs 400 respectively for states, while the price at which the Centre could purchase stands at Rs 150 per dose. They are yet to reduce their prices for others, such as private hospitals, which are Rs 600 and Rs 1,200 respectively. This reduction is too little and much more than the price at which the Centre is getting it. The Trade Unions have said that this pro-corporate deregulation on vaccine and other essential ingredients of pandemic management will further facilitate hoarding and black marketing, which is already going on in case of essential medicines like Remdesivir and oxygen. Overwhelming majority of our people who cannot afford the huge price of the vaccine would be excluded. Policies of exclusion have now become the hallmark of the Central government.
The Central Trade Unions are not the only one concerned about the differential prices. Even the Supreme Court of India has expressed its concern just one day before the launch of the vaccination drive for 18 years and above. The Supreme Court said that the differential pricing of vaccine for the Centre, State, and private hospitals is “very very disturbing”. “Why cannot the government buy all vaccines and proceed on the lines of the national immunisation programme?” the court asked, while saying that the government must think of providing free of cost vaccination to all citizens.
Within 15 days of launching the vaccination drive on January 16, it came out in the public domain that there was a hurdle in getting raw material from abroad for vaccine production. Despite this fact, India allowed exports of produced vaccines. Indian vaccine manufacturer also wanted financial help from the Centre to substantially increase production. The Centre did a little to improve the position, and now came with the present plan by abdicating its responsibilities to the states and private sector and keeping only 50 per cent of the doses with itself. The manufacturers were allowed to sell 50 per cent of the doses at higher prices.
The present situation urgently demands removal of policy impediments, inequitable prices, and sluggishness which can be done by taking immediate measures to ensure 100 percent procurement of the vaccine, its adequate supply to the states, its availability to all free of cost, particularly those who cannot afford it in the open market. Financially constrained states must be helped with funds and people should be supported over profiteering by the vaccine-pharmaceutical barons. (IPA Service)