Mess of the jab
With India facing an acute vaccine shortage, crores of people may have to wait three months for their first shot
The cruellest joke being played on us is people urging us to get vaccinated. We are so ready for the jab, but pray tell, where is it? India is facing an acute vaccine shortage, rendering the largest vaccination drive in the world also the slowest. The sluggish pace of vaccination is reducing in numbers rather than increasing as we face the full thrust of the second Covid wave. A series of unfortunate events, lack of foresight, and planning lie at the core of this colossal incompetence, and there are many players at fault here, whose ineptitude is being borne by the citizens of this once-great nation.
If we are lucky, then after three months can one in four of us hope to receive the first vaccine dose; that's likely to happen in August as per news reports. Going by current production numbers, we may well be facing a third wave with almost eight crore Indians not having the protection proffered by a single vaccine dose. Till now only three per cent of our teeming multitudes have full vaccine protection. Since the early days, we had known that there would be a shortage of vaccines but instead of focussing on ramping up production, allowing other companies to also manufacture vaccines, or inviting foreign vaccine companies, in a philanthropic move, India started exporting vaccines. Till April, when the vaccine export was suddenly stopped, India had exported 66 million doses to 95 countries. Our government's short-sightedness allowed them to forget that charity begins at home, the price is now being paid with thousands of Indian lives. That same vaccine diplomacy that fed our government's hubris is now its Achilles' heel as India now begs for aid, oxygen, medical supplies, and yes, even vaccines.
The US and UK learnt from the human loss caused by the first wave in 2020, and their single-minded focus was on getting most of their populations inoculated. Such was the aggressive vaccine production, that the US apparently has vaccines in excess. By comparison, we not only have vaccine shortage, we also have a super-virus on steroids infecting, often fatally, the populace. So many things went wrong, topmost among them is vaccine-makers setting the vaccine policy, rather than the government. Our blind reliance on one major vaccine maker, Serum Institute of India (SII), is also greatly to blame. No doubt that SII boasts of huge production facilities but the task at hand, of vaccinating the entire country, was a challenging and arduous one. To strengthen production, more monies were needed; the government played a virtually silent role in planning for this. The other manufacturer, Bharat Biotech, a smaller player compared to SII, couldn't have been expected to pick up the slack either.
According to news reports, Pfizer had applied for emergency-use approval way back in December 2020, but after an inordinate delay, their patience waned, and they withdrew their application. What prevented the government from allowing foreign manufacturers to produce, supply, and even manufacture vaccines in India? Some Opposition parties had made the suggestion long ago. But political distrust runs deep in today's clime and their suggestion was summarily chucked out.
We wanted to be 'Atmanirbhar' and tom-tom our achievements. No harm there as long as the verbal hyperboles had been backed by actual on-ground actions and achievements. We often heard of India's success of the Pulse Polio Immunization Programme. Not a mean feat, but it was carried out over years; there was no urgency like there is now to fight an audacious virus within months! The lack of a vaccine-focussed government task force was a gaping hole in policy. Found exposed and knee-deep in the Covid crisis, the onus was quickly shifted to the state governments, who have only now floated global tenders for vaccines.
For the believers of the government, here's a question: even if there was such little preparation for the second wave of Covid-19, surely, the plans were already afoot to vaccinate the Indian population, so how do we find ourselves in this abyss? We are hankering for open slots on CoWin to get vaccinated, almost always greeted by the red 'booked' sign. There are no answers yet on what happens to the population that can't register online.
As per reports, almost 9.5 crore people are awaiting their second dose. There is frustration, disappointment, and fear of the virus getting us before we can even give ourselves the armour of the vaccine. A clueless central administration now embarks on a campaign to right the narrative, own the news, and pass the buck onto the states while squarely blaming them for all screw-ups. A flurry of so-called 'positive news' has commenced even as the losses of loved ones, friends, and acquaintances mount up, dead bodies float without dignity in the Ganges or given surreptitious burials in unmarked graves. You can rest assured that at least one machinery of the government is functioning seamlessly — the PR department.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal