Updated: April 11, 2021 9:14:07 am
Like the Prime Minister, I got my second vaccination last week and after it a certificate with Narendra Modi’s face on it. Beside his smiling visage was this message, ‘Together, India will defeat Covid-19.’ These words came back to me when I heard the Prime Minister warn chief ministers that they must not create panic by spreading stories about vaccine shortages and should instead concentrate on testing. “We won the fight without vaccinations, when we didn’t know that there would be vaccines.” He then proceeded to announce that there will be a Vaccination Utsav from today that will go on for four days. Why have a Vaccination Festival if vaccinations are unimportant?
It was not just the confused messaging that bothered me. Other things did as well. If India was truly working ‘together’ to defeat this awful disease, would chief ministers who complain about vaccine shortages be ordered by the Prime Minister not to ‘create a panic in public’? Would they be insulted by BJP spokesmen on national television for ‘playing politics’? If they are part of the Prime Minister’s team, should he not listen to what they are saying? The thing that worried me most was that our Leader seems unaware of how serious the vaccine shortage is. I was one of Mumbai’s luckier citizens. Hours after I got my shot and Modi certificate, many vaccination centres in the city closed down because of an acute shortage of vaccines. I left Mumbai soon after taking my jab to take refuge in the seaside village in which I spent most of last year, only to discover that there is a serious shortage of vaccines in this rural district.
India cannot afford to fall behind in the vaccination race because the whole world now knows that the only way to defeat Covid-19 is by vaccinating as many people as possible, as soon as possible. So, when high officials in the Government of India declare that only those who ‘need’ vaccinations should be given them, they seem either to be covering up for the serious shortage of vaccines or to be totally removed from reality. Every government in the world today is centering its fight against the pandemic on massive vaccination programmes so that there can be some sort of return to normal times by the middle of this year. Only in India do we seem to continue believing that the way forward is to scale up testing.
This second wave is much, much worse than the first one, so it is not just cities like Mumbai and Delhi that have started imposing curfews and lockdowns. Smaller cities like Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi and Raipur are enforcing curbs as well, and these will, as they did last time, serve mostly to hurt the economy and not control the pandemic. Already migrant workers are beginning to flee because their jobs have gone. It was one of these fleeing migrants who had the best comment to make on what is happening. He told the NDTV reporter interviewing him in his crowded train compartment that people did not understand why Covid seemed not to exist in the states in which elections are being held. “Thousands of people gather at those election rallies and nobody seems to have any problem with that. But when it comes to us just trying to make a living, Corona suddenly comes in the way.”
Something has gone very wrong. And it could be because the Prime Minister and his advisors continue to invest their faith in centrally planning our vaccination strategy. Why are state governments not allowed to procure as many vaccines as they want from whoever they want? Why are they not being allowed to decide the price of these vaccines so that Indians who can afford to pay a full price should be allowed to? Why is the Government of India not distributing among state governments the Rs 35,000 crore set aside for vaccinations in this year’s national Budget? Why are private hospitals not being allowed to play a much bigger role than they have so far? Why is the Serum Institute not already being given the
Rs 3,000 crore that Adar Poonawalla says they need to ramp up production?
These are questions that the Prime Minister will need to address urgently because, if he has put his picture on vaccination certificates, it is clearly with the idea of taking personal credit. Last year when India seemed to do much better than most countries, the vast network of Modi devotees on social media took to repeating ad nauseam that it was only because of Modi’s ‘great leadership’ that we did better than other countries. Now that it looks as if it is the disease that is winning the war, they hurl abuse at anyone who points out that there is a severe shortage of vaccines.
The truth is that things have clearly gone very, very wrong with our vaccination strategy and nobody in the Government of India seems ready to acknowledge this. Gimmicks like a ‘Vaccination Utsav’ will not work. What is needed urgently is a comprehensive review and a whole new strategy, but who is going to do this when the two men who make the big decisions for India are both totally immersed in the campaign for West Bengal. Winning Bengal or any other state will mean nothing if the war against the pandemic is lost.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 11, 2021 under the title ‘Our worst covid crisis’
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