Those who are impatient to get on with their lives, work and pre-COVID routines have been critical of the fact that vaccines for people who are not on the priority list appear months away. Others who are still in ‘wait and watch’ mode are not complaining – more because they are hopeful that delaying the jab will not make them ‘guinea pigs’. But irrespective of whether one intends to get vaccinated or not, the slow pace of inoculation is a matter of concern in India that has recorded over one crore COVID-19 cases and over 1.5 lakh deaths.
India kicked off the world’s largest vaccine drive on January 16 this year with three crore essential workers identified for the first phase of inoculation. This number was to increase tenfold with the projection that 30 cr Indians would get vaccinated by August 2021. On February 19, just a little over a month after the vaccine drive started, India successfully administered one crore doses of COVID vaccines, becoming the second-fastest country in the world to hit that milestone.
While it’s a definitely significant achievement, it also makes one wonder that at the current pace, could the nation’s 30 cr vaccination target be 30 months away? The primary reason behind the slow pace of the drive has been blamed on misinformation and mistrust. Rumours of side effects and misplaced ‘cautionary’ messages circulating online have added to the hesitancy of people identified to be vaccinated. Tamil Nadu has the dubious distinction of being the only large state in the ‘laggard’ category. Despite having one of the finest healthcare systems, TN along with Delhi, Punjab and a handful of UTs, barely reached 50 pc of their projected vaccine coverage in the first month. As one of the largest producers and a key exporter of the vaccine, there is a strong case that India should have been faster given that both Covishield and Covaxin do not require complicated cold chain mechanisms needed by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines deployed in the West. India had stockpiled around 80 mn or more vaccines before it began the drive. It’s also important to remember that India is no novice at vaccinations.
Considering around 17 cr children are inoculated every year under the pulse polio vaccination drive, several other annual vaccinations are administered to a diverse population across a range of age, gender, economic and social parameters, this should not be a challenge. So while it’s not a bad thing to start the COVID 19 vaccinations at a slow pace – as the experts have pointed out, “this is a marathon, not a sprint” – the pertinent question is, how long before the pace picks up? In order to meet vaccination targets, the Centre needs to loosen control and activate the private healthcare network. By keeping tight control over the beneficiaries and relying completely on the already strained public sector healthcare workers to administer vaccines, the government is showing signs of going down the same slippery slope it did during the testing phase. As it was seen, in the initial days of the lockdown, the testing was lagging badly, until the private sector stepped in.
The need of the hour is to bring both scale and speed into this operation. It is no longer enough for the Centre to boast that it was faster in administering vaccines than other countries such as the US and Britain, which were out of the vaccination blocks a little earlier. With the next wave of COVID threatening to hit Maharashtra and Kerala, the Centre must be proactive and not lose focus amid concerns about excessive pricing and exploitation by the private sector in the absence of government intervention. Controlling the epidemic in India was not a small feat, and when the finish line is in sight, the Centre should not undo the good work by attempting to control the process, when it can simply control the price factor instead.