WHEN WORD CAME THAT Prime Minister Narendra Modi would address the nation at 5 pm on June 7, the pandemic afflicted nation was at a critical crossroads. On a positive note, the Second Wave was clearly on the wane, with new cases of Covid-19 infection dropping from the daily peak of 400,000 to under 100,000 by June 1. Yet, they were still higher than at the height of the first wave, which meant that the red signal remained on, and the unlockdown process had to be gradual. On the negative side, the carefully-calibrated Covid vaccination programme was threatening to descend into a self-inflicted anarchy.
The liberalised vaccine regime that the central government had announced on April 21 allowing states their own purchase and pricing for vaccinating the 18-44 year age group was failing. Even the Supreme Court termed it “irrational and arbitrary” and asked the Centre to roll it back. As the blame game between the Centre and states intensified, the month of May saw a substantial drop in vaccinations compared to April due to a shortage of doses. While the Centre boasted that India was among the top three nations in terms of total number of vaccinations—behind only China and the US—the fact remained that even after 136 days of vaccinations, as of June 1 only 41 million people, or 3 per cent of the country’s population had received both their doses.
The Modi government had also come under flak for its poor handling of the Second Wave. State governments, too, were not spared, especially over the collapse of critical care facilities for severe Covid patients in major cities and in rural areas. The situation was compounded by a deadly shortage of medical oxygen that saw fatalities double in comparison to the First Wave. The long queues outside crematoriums to dispose of the dead only added to the people’s anger and anguish. Their loss of faith and trust in the ability of both the central and state governments to handle the pandemic was evident. Worse, a third wave, possibly as devastating as the second, seemed imminent as the vast majority of Indians remained unprotected without inoculation.
The writing was on the wall when Modi began his broadcast. The vaccination strategy needed course correction before the situation spiralled completely out of control. Many states did demand that the vaccination be expanded to younger age groups and the procurement decentralised to permit them to directly purchase vaccines from manufacturers. But the Centre clearly erred in acceding to their requests given its own experience in procuring vaccine doses in the preceding months. So, Modi made a virtue out of necessity and announced that the Centre would now handle the entire procurement of vaccines (which it was doing before it announced the liberalised regime) and in addition would make vaccines available for free for the 18-44 age group as it was for the 45 years and above group. Quoting from the scriptures, he said: “Vijeta aapada aane par usse pareshaan hokar haar nahin maante balki udyam karte hain, parishram karte hain aur paristhiti par jeet haasil karte hain (Winners do not give up in the face of disaster. They work on it and conquer the situation).”
Much remains to be conquered in India’s mission vaccination. The Centre had announced a target of inoculating the country’s 940 million adult population by December 31. This means vaccinating 900 million people from June onwards at the rate of 8.4 million daily—triple the current rate of 2.7 million. At this rate, the entire population of the US of 300 million would get vaccinated in 71 days. The US, which began its vaccination programme on December 14, had as on June 8 covered 143 million, or 42.3 per cent of its population with a daily vaccination rate of less than a million.
Getting 900 million adult Indians vaccinated by December-end is indeed a humungous task. Not only does the central government have to procure nearly 2 billion doses, it must also mobilise the health infrastructure of the country to inject the numbers required to meet the target. A senior government official says, “It is like a T-20 match where if the side batting second doesn’t score the necessary runs in each over, the asking rate mounts.” So, if for some reason, the vaccination effort flags in any month, as it did in May, the number of daily vaccinations required could go up to as many as 10 million. Is India’s vaccine target a Mission Impossible then?
Dr Vinod K. Paul, chairperson of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC), the premier body overseeing vaccine procurement and distribution in the country, is confident of accomplishing the target. “It is a mission difficult but it is not a mission impossible,” he says. “We have been able to secure the vaccine doses we require to meet the target by December-end and are putting in place the wherewithal to treble our daily capability for inoculations, including in rural areas.” Paul has reason to be sanguine. From the perilous position India found itself in May with vaccine shortages being the rule, NEGVAC has worked in the past two months to boost availability to levels that give the country some comfort. For June and July alone, 280 million doses have been purchased already.
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