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Whither Vaccine Utsav? How India lost 4 precious months in self-congratulatory mode

By Harshavardhan Purandare, Sandeep Pandey* 

India has been advertised as ‘the country with a great future’ ever since we globalised in the 1990s, but now this narrative of the future has become empty rhetoric to hide our weaknesses. At present, we paint a pathetic picture of ourselves. 
As Covid-19 second wave reaches the marginalised sections of our society with the slow but silent spread of the pandemic to rural India it is the worst nightmare faced by us in recent history. The dead bodies are floating in Ganga in hundreds. It appears to be a humanitarian crisis now. ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is now “Ram Bharose” and there are dark stains on ‘Clean Ganga.’
The most important work ahead of us is to vaccinate, vaccinate and vaccinate. India has traditionally been weak on public health infrastructure, so shortage of oxygen, beds, medicines and ventilators in government facilities is expected. The health services owned by the private sector are affordable only to a very limited well-to-do section of population.
The market economy might have managed to put cell phones in every hand, but markets are bad keepers of health. So overall, we are struggling to cure the infected. But we could have done a lot better in not getting infected in the first place. Vaccination is the mantra and it has been our forte. But as weeks pass we are now losing on that advantage and opportunity too.
The recent roll out of the vaccination blueprint by the Modi government gives us a rosy picture that we are going to get ‘216 Crore’ vaccines between ‘August to December 2021’. Considering that the vaccination programme in India began on January 16, 2021, and the fact that vaccine is going to be effective only for a year, even if everything works out according to plan, which appears very unlikely given the present state of uncertainty, by the time we vaccinate enough population to kick in herd immunity it’ll be time to begin fresh round of vaccination all over again.
This blueprint avoids very basic questions that need to be asked about the present failure of our vaccination programme and shuns us from the lessons that we should be learning while in battle field. It appears to be more of a headline management by the Modi government as seen on numerous occasions in the past. We were once told that we are going to become 5 trillion dollars economy, but that fantasy balloon has busted. We cannot afford a vaccination programme to meet the same fate.
In spite of having a strong pharmaceutical sector, we have failed in procurement of vaccines. India is called the pharmacy of the third world and has largest vaccine producing capacity. We have successfully vaccinated our population against small pox and polio in the past. The complacency and superstition did lead us to think that Corona was over after the first wave and we were told to celebrate ‘Vaccine Utsav’. We lost 3-4 months of precious time in self congratulatory mode.
We even began exporting the vaccines beyond our real exporting capacity and lost balance with domestic demand. We projected ourselves as a potential vaccine powerhouse of the world, and now we have positioned ourselves as bulk purchaser from global market. Adar Poonawala, on whom the government had put its bet and Modi visited Serum Institute as symbolic gesture, has left for London, probably for greener pastures and possibly for ever. Poonawala’s exit with his statement that “He is pressurized for vaccines in India'' is symptom of our broken system in spite of a ‘strong’ Prime Minister at the helm of affairs.
Corona vaccination is basically a race with time and it was a grave mistake that our leadership assessed that we have time at our disposal
Corona vaccination is basically a race with time and it was a grave mistake that our leadership assessed that we have time at our disposal. We have no bulk of vaccine flowing in before July-August and by that time lakhs of Indians will be dead with statistical underreporting by various state governments.
As a remedy, the states are given freedom to procure for themselves. It is abdication of responsibility by the centre, but also depicts that the bargaining capacity and diplomatic power of the Modi government is not of much use when it is needed most.
There are problems with delivery, too.
Idea of the vaccination process being administered through the virtual backbone of Cowin App is exciting. Connecting to the system through mobile and Aadhar is a good thing to streamline the rush at the centres and allocate slots. But that is about it. Cowin cannot ensure anything beyond that. Cowin earned its own internet jokes as it never was end in itself. Delhi High Court has ridiculed the irritating message on vaccination before every phone call when there are no vaccines available.
India should have a universal vaccination programme like it had for small pox and polio and government should have taken complete responsibility of it. Decentralization with effective knowledge transfer and appropriate investments into vaccination networks of diverse kinds should have been our strategy. Multiple stakeholders should have been empowered. There is no sign of any innovative ecosystem consciously created by our political leadership. The country has run out of ideas to create faster and impactful model of vaccination movement. All we have are vaccine shortage boards outside our centers and usual Indian chaos and melodrama around vaccination.
Modi sits staring at us on our vaccination certificates for the fortunate ones who are vaccinated. But Modi’s political style of functioning has yet again failed to create a sense of security in our polity and any kind of real vaccination assurance across length and breadth of India.
Bhartiya Janata Party leaders never fail to commit faux pas, especially in crisis time. While Sambit Patra is still defending the vaccine export by the government, former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat has come out in defense of right to life of the Corona virus, knowing little that virus is not a living organism.
What the blueprint reflects is: Covid is there today and vaccines can only come tomorrow. The government has released a blueprint of possible availability of vaccines, when what we need is vaccine itself.
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*Associated with Socialist Party (India)

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