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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Covid-19 second-wave states ask for more vaccines, Centre accuses them of playing politics

Shifting the goalposts: Health Minister slams Maharashtra, Delhi, Punjab, Chhattisgarh

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi |
Updated: April 8, 2021 7:42:59 am
Waiting for their turn for vaccination at ‘Jumbo’ Covid facility, Bandra Kurla Complex, in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Express Photo: Pradip Das)

The coordinated Covid-19 battle plan between the Centre and states came under strain Wednesday when the Union Health Ministry, being pushed by several states to supply more vaccine doses and open up the vaccination process to all individuals above the age of 18, reacted sharply, accusing the second-wave surge states of “politicizing” a public health issue and “spreading lies”, and of not doing enough in terms of testing, contact tracing and ramping up the health infrastructure.

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who came down heavily on Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab, the states contributing most to the second surge of Covid-19 cases, said they were “trying to divert attention from their poor vaccination efforts by just continuously shifting the goalposts”. Yet he acknowledged, in an official statement, that “the supply of vaccines remains limited” and so long as the situation continues, “there is no option but to prioritize” age groups in the country.

His remarks came a day ahead of an all-important meeting of the Prime Minister with the Chief Ministers scheduled Thursday.

Also Wednesday, Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla, in an interview published in the Business Standard, said SII has sought “a few thousand crores” as grant from the government to double the production of Covishield. “If the funds come, we are ready to deliver double the quantity of vaccines within two months,” he said.

Senior government sources, however, said: “There is no provision for a grant. What are given, and what firms ask for, are advance payments. These are then adjusted against vaccines supplied. It straightens liquidity position. But we don’t know whether the firm has asked for it.”

The Centre made another announcement on the eve of the PM-CMs meeting — the launch of workplace vaccination centres across the country from April 11.

The Health Minister, in his statement, slammed Chhattisgarh for refusing to use Covaxin and for “being perhaps the only government in the world to have incited vaccine hesitancy”.

He said “quality of testing needs to improve in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat”.

Reiterating the Centre’s stand that the “primary aim of vaccination” is to “reduce mortality among the most vulnerable people”, Harsh Vardhan said: “So long as the supply of vaccines remains limited, there is no option but to prioritize. This is also established practice around the world, and is well known to all state governments.” Targeting Maharashtra, he said there have been “deplorable attempts by some state governments to distract attention from their failures” and “spread panic among the people”.

Relatives of Covid-infected patients wait outside a pharmacy to buy Remdesivir, at Poona Hospital Medical Store in Pune on Wednesday night. (Express Photo: Pavan Khengre)

“Maharashtra government needs to do a lot more to control the pandemic and the Central Government will help them in all possible ways. But focusing all their energies on playing politics and spreading lies to create panic is not going to help the people of Maharashtra,” he said.

On reports of vaccine shortage, he pointed out that states are being updated about the demand-supply dynamics on vaccines.

“The Government of India has been frequently and transparently updating all the State governments about the demand-supply dynamics and the resultant vaccination strategy that has been adopted. In fact, the vaccination strategy has been drawn up after extensive deliberations and consultations in partnership with all State governments,” he said.

He specifically rejected reports on vaccine shortage from Maharashtra. “This is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from Maharashtra government’s repeated failures to control the spread of pandemic. The inability of the Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among the people is to compound the folly further. Vaccine supplies are being monitored on a real-time basis, and State governments are being apprised regularly about it. Allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless,” he said.

Union Cabinet Minister Prakash Javadekar, in a tweet, released data on vaccine supplies to Maharashtra: “Maharashtra Govt should not play politics over vaccination. Here are the facts: Total number of COVID vaccine supplied to State till date — 1,06,19,190; Consumption — 90,53,523 (of which 6% wastage — over 5L) Vaccine in pipeline — 7,43,280. Dosage available — nearly 23 lakhs.”

Harsh Vardhan criticised Maharashtra, Punjab and Delhi over their poor vaccination coverage among the priority groups. “When states ask to open up vaccine supplies to everyone over 18, we must presume that they have done saturation coverage of healthcare workers, frontline workers and senior citizens. But the facts are altogether different,” he said.

He said Maharashtra has vaccinated only 86 per cent and 46 per cent of health workers with first dose and second dose respectively; Delhi has vaccinated 72 per cent and 41 per cent of health workers with first and second dose respectively; and Punjab has vaccinated 64 per cent and 27 per cent of health workers with first and second dose, respectively.

“On the other hand, 10 Indian states/UTs have done more than 90% (first dose to health workers)… There are 12 Indian states/UTs that have done more than 60% (second dose to health workers),” Harsh Vardhan said.

He also flagged low coverage among senior citizens in these states. “When it comes to senior citizens, Maharashtra has vaccinated just 25%, Delhi has vaccinated 30%; Punjab has vaccinated only 13%. There are 4 states/UTs that have already vaccinated more than 50%,” he said.

“Doesn’t it seem evident that these states are trying to divert attention from their poor vaccination efforts by just continuously shifting the goal-posts? Politicizing such a public health issue is a damning indictment of certain political leaders who should know better,” he said.

The Health Minister said the “lackadaisical attitude” of the Maharashtra government has “singularly bogged down the entire country’s efforts to fight the virus”.

“Today, Maharashtra not only has the highest cases and deaths in the country but also has one of the highest test positivity rates in the world! Their testing is not up to the mark and their contact tracing leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.

Hitting out at Chhattisgarh, he said the state should focus its energy on ramping up its health infrastructure. “…we have seen regular comments by leaders from Chhattisgarh that are intended to spread misinformation and panic on vaccination. I would like to humbly state that it would be better if the state government focuses its energies on ramping up their health infrastructure rather than on petty politicking. Chhattisgarh has seen a disproportionately higher number of deaths in the last 2-3 weeks. Their testing remains heavily dependent on rapid antigen tests which is not a wise strategy,” he said.

“The state Government in fact refused to use Covaxin despite it being given Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Drug Controller of India. Not only this, by its actions, the leaders of the state government have the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only government in the world to have incited vaccine hesitancy,” he said.

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