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Coronavirus Pandemic: Is there a vaccination strategy?

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Had he not been prime minister, they said, we would not have been able to stop Covid-19 from killing millions of Indians.Had he not been prime minister, they said, we would not have been able to stop Covid-19 from killing millions of Indians.Had he not been prime minister, they said, we would not have been able to stop Covid-19 from killing millions of Indians.

Two questions first. Who is to blame for our alarming shortage of vaccines? Why have they not already been sacked for criminal negligence? Having said this, let me honestly admit that in this very space a month ago, I wrote that our government had helped us deal with the pandemic painlessly. Mea culpa. Not just for speaking too soon but also for being among those who never urged our scientists and epidemiologists to seriously analyse why the mortality rate had remained so low in India when countries with much better public health services had seen such high death tolls.

It was this low mortality rate that caused an insane complacency to settle over us and it gave Narendra Modi’s devotees a chance to sing paeans to him and give him credit for ‘saving India’. Had he not been prime minister, they said, we would not have been able to stop Covid-19 from killing millions of Indians. Modi accepted the tributes as he always does and became so complacent himself that he declared before last week’s Vaccine Festival that we had ‘defeated’ the pandemic last year without vaccinations. We did this, he boasted, when there was not even the flicker of a vaccine on the horizon. He spoke too soon and seems not to have noticed that in the United States and the United Kingdom the return to almost full normalcy has begun because nearly half the population has already been vaccinated.

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His government instead showed such disdain for vaccinations that it did not bother even to order sufficient supplies to get close to having enough for at least half of India’s population to be vaccinated. In a very perceptive article last week, Naushad Forbes, former President of the CII (Confederation of Indian Industries), said this. “In January 2021 India approved its first vaccines for use. The Ken Nutgraf tells us that between July 2020 (before any vaccines had passed testing) and January 2021, the US ordered (and paid for) over 600 million doses. That’s for a population of 300 million. In the same period, India ordered 11 million doses, for a country of 1300 million.”

If the men who make up the Government of India’s vaccination task force have the smallest sense of honour, they should accept blame and resign. Since they have not shown any sign of doing this, they must be sacked and replaced by people who can help India catch up. It is shameful that a country that is believed to produce more than 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines should be so short of them. It will take us many, many months before we can catch up with countries which realised wisely long ago that the only way to win against this awful pandemic is by vaccinating as many people as possible. This will need to start happening now on a war-footing.

What is worrying is that despite the queues outside hospitals, vaccination centres, crematoriums and graveyards, the horror of what is happening seems not to have affected the Modi government. Why are millions still being allowed to attend election rallies in the unending Bengal election? Why are pilgrims being allowed to travel in huge numbers to Vaishno Devi? Why was the Kumbh Mela allowed to go ahead? And, why are municipal elections going ahead in Uttar Pradesh when the most populous of our states is showing signs of a scary surge? Pictures of rows of funeral pyres that went viral on social media last week are terrifying.

In Maharashtra, from where I write this piece, there is now a lockdown which is euphemistically called a ‘janata curfew’, and by the time it is lifted at the end of this month, many small businesses will have closed for good. Mercifully, this time around, migrant workers who have yet again lost their jobs in towns and cities are able at least to get trains to return to their villages. But, the damage that this lockdown is doing to the economy is incalculable. Lockdowns always harm the economy more than the pandemic, but this desperate measure seems to have been taken because hospitals ran out of oxygen, medicine, doctors and beds.

There are signs of this happening in Delhi and in cities across the country. Who should we blame for things having come to this pass? Should those high officials in the Government of India who we trusted with our lives not come forward and accept responsibility? Why is the Prime Minister silent at a time when he should be leading from the front? His government has lifted restrictions on the import of foreign vaccines, but someone needs to take charge of ensuring that they are made easily available to those who are ready to pay for them, and for those who cannot afford expensive vaccinations, the government can help out by dipping into the Prime Minister’s CARES Fund and the Rs 35,000 crore set aside for vaccinations in this year’s national Budget.

Most important of all is for the Government of India to tell us when it expects enough supplies of vaccinations to be made available for every Indian who wants to take them. Only when this happens will the panic and hysteria that is spreading across the country begin to wane. One big reason for the current mood of anxiety and fear is because ordinary people sense that the Government has lost the plot.

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