India’s Covid-19 vaccine programme has gone off-kilter, especially after the government decided to throw it open to those between 18 and 45 years of age. Under the new Liberalised Accelerated National Covid-19 Vaccine Strategy, as the central government policy is called, there has been a huge surge in demand for vaccines since May 1, when people in the 18-45 years bracket became eligible for shots. It was nearly 680-700 million doses for over 340 million people above 45, plus another 600 million doses for Phases I and II. Now it has increased to nearly one billion doses, just for the first dose for all eligible. India requires nearly 2.2 billion doses (of the two-dose vaccines) for its adult population and possibly another billion if it decides to vaccinate young children at some point.
The government boasts it has already inoculated 134.4 million people (as of May 9, but mind you: only the first shot), which is barely 10 per cent of India’s 1.36 billion-plus population; the percentage of fully vaccinated people is just 2.63 per cent (or 35.8 million). In comparison, the US and UK have fully vaccinated 36 and 27 per cent of their population, respectively. India will fall short even of its initial goal of covering 300 million people by August unless it is able to double its current average of 1.7 million doses per day. Going by the current rate, it will require three years to inoculate India’s entire adult population.
Already, the government’s new ‘liberal’ vaccine policy is causing much angst across the country, as states report shortages of vaccines to inoculate the 18-44 age group, for whom vaccinations officially opened on May 1. In addition, there are concerns about vaccine equity, with the more prosperous and connected urban populations cornering the bulk of the supply, leaving the poor exposed. The mayhem has led to experts like epidemiologist Dr Gagandeep Kang asking for “a rollback of the new policy”. The Supreme Court, too, has been hearing petitions seeking a revision of the new policy. The Union government, however, bluntly told the nation’s highest court on May 10 that the vaccine policy is in the executive domain and there is “little room for judicial interference” and that “any overzealous though well-meaning judicial intervention may lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences”.
But even as the government effectively asked the court to mind its own business, it has done little to inspire confidence that it knows the way and has a workable plan. What options does the government have to re-tailor its strategy, given that vaccines have become the first line of defence in India’s battle against the runaway pandemic?
IN ITS AFFIDAVIT TO THE Supreme Court, the central government justified its new policy, claiming that it would lead to an increase in the overall production of vaccines as well as speed up delivery to people. Under the new policy, it has liberalised imports of foreign vaccines apart from permitting state governments to purchase vaccines directly from manufacturers to meet the increased demand from the 18-44 age group while the Centre remains committed to providing free vaccines to the 45+ years demographic. The Centre also rationalized that with states announcing that they would give the vaccine free to those between 18 and 44 years, the equity issue had also been addressed.
SEASON OF HARD CHOICES
While the new policy makes several necessary tweaks, both state government officials and experts feel these cannot resolve the problem at hand for various reasons.
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