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Saturday, June 19, 2021

India needs free universal vaccination

Only when everyone is vaccinated can the country be insulated against the pandemic.

Written by Binoy Viswam |
June 3, 2021 12:01:50 am
Beneficiaries being inoculated inside Vishnudas Bhave Auditorium, Vashi. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

After reporting over four lakh daily cases at the peak of the second wave, the country is now longing to heave a sigh of relief. After many weeks the test positivity rate signals a gradual decline. This does not mean that we have won the battle against Covid-19. Scientists and experts have cautioned us about the possible outbreak of a third wave. It would be more disastrous than the second one, they say.

Since the beginning of 2020, India has been reeling under many crises, with sorrow and agony felt in all sectors of life. The economic, social, health and psychological impact of Covid-19 has been deep. It may take many years for the nation to get back to the normal rhythm of life. The contraction in GDP speaks about the impact of Covid on the economic front. Millions have lost their jobs in March-April (CMIE, April,2021). Workers in the organised and unorganised sectors suffered in the initial days of national lockdown in 2020. The mass exodus of migrant labourers along the length and breadth of India was heartbreaking. The rural economy, which could somehow withstand the first wave, trembled before the second wave. The dead bodies floating in the holy Ganges speak volumes about the pitiable conditions existing in the villages of modern India.

How are we going to win this life-and-death battle? As the third wave approaches our strategy to fight it is crucial.
Now, even the government would admit that banging on plates and chanting “Go, go Corona” is not the solution. To win any battle, the forces, the ammunition and the strategy are vital components. In this battle against Covid-19 everything revolves around one thing — vaccination. People feel that the government has not learned any lessons from its colossal failures. Though there were ample warnings during the first wave itself, the government was totally unprepared to meet the challenges of the second wave. The price we paid for negligence is unmeasurable. History will not forgive us if we repeat the same mistakes. The basic weaknesses of our health policy and the health care system stares at us in the new situation.

In this era of global warming and climate change, a pandemic may strike us at any moment of time. A generation destined to live along with pandemics of various kinds every 10 years has the right to a clear-cut and meaningful policy from the government. For that, the government should initiate discussions with a wide spectrum of doctors, scientists, and health workers. Their scientific knowledge and practical experiences are resourceful investments in addressing the challenges. But the immediate necessity is precision, clarity and inclusivity in the vaccine policy.

Universal vaccination is the main weapon in the fight against the pandemic. Experiences around the world prove that it is the reliable way to herd immunity. Only when everyone is vaccinated can the country be insulated against the pandemic. For the safety of any person, his/her colleagues or neighbours also need to be vaccinated. Having accepted this fact, countries around the world have chalked out their policies in this global battle. In a huge country like India, where a large proportion of the population lives below the poverty line, this, of course, is a herculean task. The challenge before the government is to take up this task. By May 25, 20.04 crore people got vaccinated in India. But among them only 4.35 crore could get two doses. It is better not to talk about inoculation rate in the 18-44 age category. In a country of more than 130 crore people these figures are eye-openers. At this pace, India needs more than two more years to complete vaccination. No responsible government can sit idly before such an alarming situation for such a long period of time. The government of India shows extraordinary “calibre” in this matter. It goes on talking about vaccination for all, while people continue to feel insecurity and agony. They want to hear from the government a policy declaration of “free and compulsory vaccination for all”.

It has been stated by the Kerala High Court that at the rate of Rs 250 per dose, vaccinating the entire country will cost around Rs 34,250 crore. Even if it is double the amount, nobody would say that it is an unbearable cost for a huge country like India, which claims to be the fastest growing economy in the world. In the budget for 2021-22, the government earmarked Rs 35,000 crore for Covid vaccination. If further money is needed, the government can easily divert the Rs 20,000 crore allotted for the Central Vista project to the vaccination drive. Nothing is more important for the country than this fight against the disastrous pandemic. Still, the people of India wonder why the government is hesitating to announce a strategy of free and compulsory universal vaccination. Even in the US where everything is decided to the tune of the market, vaccinations are free. But in the land of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the “world’s largest inoculation programme”, his government seems to move in a halfhearted manner. Even the usual rhetoric of the Prime Minister is reluctant to touch on the crucial financial aspects of total vaccination. It is not the lack of resources or non-availability of vaccines that compels India to remain in a confused stage. The lack of vision coupled with the absence of political will made India weak and disoriented in this battle. This state of affairs would be further complicated if we face a possible third wave with this poor level of preparedness. In India, the vaccination policy, which is the most crucial component in this war against Covid-19, was designed in such a manner as to serve the interests of private manufacturers. Robust public sector participation in the pharmaceutical industry that helped India become the “pharmacy of the world” was seen nowhere. The patent regime was already remoulded to the dictates of the global market. Profit, not the people, became the driving force in policy making. The bankruptcy of that policy has been totally unveiled during the pandemic. Even in countries of free-market frenzy, the government had to intervene decisively to save the lives of their people. This is the moment for India to make a decision.

The government should come out in firefighting mode to collect sufficient doses of vaccines. The role of the government at such a crucial moment is vital. Free and universal vaccination in a time-bound manner should be the motto of the government. The people are badly waiting for it. India has an efficient army of health workers whose dedication and talents are proven. The government has to act here and now. Let us prevent the third wave before its dreadful tentacles embrace us.

(Binoy Viswam is the secretary of the Communist Party of India, National Council and leader of the party in Parliament)

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