As India reels with 50,000 deaths in 12 days, our COVID toll of avoidable deaths could have been much less if our vaccine policy had not faltered.
Consider this: On May 22, 1.6 million jabs were given but early April India was doing more than four million jabs a day. This shows how administering the jabs spluttered as the vaccine shortage kicked in.
May will end with just 50 million vaccinations. India has a population of 1.3 billion people. While there are different estimates at the current rate, vaccinating 70 per cent of all Indians (to attain herd immunity) will take over two years.
This grim estimates are a reality check as the central government shockingly has abdicated all its vaccine responsibilities and passed the burden on to the states.
The states neither have the financial wherewithal to undertake such a mammoth task nor can they deal with international pharmaceutical companies which want a liability waiver, which essentially is a sovereign guarantee that can only be given by the government of India.
Passing the buck
India is the only country in the world where the central government has passed the buck on to the states as far as the vaccination programme is concerned. This after Prime Minister, Narendra Modi first centralised everything — including who would get the jab — and then asked India to celebrate a “Tika Utsav” (jab festival) when the shortage of the vaccine was endemic. Once the extent of the shortage was revealed, India’s ill-prepared states were asked to take over.
Desperate states which have a shadow lockdown in place that is destroying the economy then reached out to the pharmaceutical giants including Pfizer and Moderna for the vaccine supply. Punjab, which has seen an explosion of COVID deaths, was told by the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna that it would not directly supply the vaccine but, would prefer to deal with the central government, which is the norm all across the world.
States including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab which have emerged as major COVID hotshots are now back to square one — unable to procure or pay for the vaccine and in a state of lockdown to control the spread of infection. The moment lockdown is lifted, the vicious cycle may start again.
Mass vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic and the BJP government clearly dropped the ball on this. From boasting of India as the pharmacy of the world and beating the drums for a “vaccine maitri” (friendship), the government happily took on the mantle of vaccine guru and shipped out COVID vaccines.
India has formally claimed at the United Nations that it had shipped out more vaccines than it had administered to its own citizens. The jury is still out if this should be a matter of pride or embarrassment for the central government.
India singularly unprepared
As the second vicious wave of COVID spread, India was singularly unprepared. The BJP government signalled to the people that all was well and India had defeated COVID. Incredibly, based on astrological advise, the Maha Kumbh was brought forward by a year and the government took out huge advertisements welcoming people to the event.
The Maha Kumbh became a COVID infection carrier to the heart of rural India, which is currently devastated with near zero medical facilities and not even the means to give dignity to the dead by proper funerals.
The BJP’s desperation to win the West Bengal elections at any cost saw the central government becoming a part-time government as the deadly second wave struck and spending all its time campaigning in West Bengal. The Prime Minister addressed more than 20 rallies across the state and did not feel the need to mask up or tell the huge crowds, who had turned out to see and hear him, to mask up and maintain COVID protocols.
As I had written in a SWAT analysis during the West Bengal elections that whichever party wins, India will lose. Now I can be more specific: COVID has won.
Modi is a powerful leader and has gotten India to swallow bitter medicine earlier during demonetisation, the botched GST roll-out, the brutal COVID lockdown at four hours notice in 2020. This time around also, there was no attempt to lead by example by wither masking up or asking people to mask up.
Deaths hugely underreported
India’s official death toll has crossed 300,000. Most estimates are that this is hugely underreported by a factor of five to ten times. This would imply that more than 1.5 million Indians may have died. How many of these Indian lives could have been saved if the vaccination drive was early and rapid?
This question will haunt India and the world in the times to come. Even now confusion reigns supreme on the mass vaccination issue. States are running out of shots and some experts have conveniently said that the gap between the two doses of Covishield can be 16 weeks as the vaccine shortage grips.
India will have to come to grips with the reality of the vaccine shortage since most of the major companies which produce the vaccines are booked solid. Rich countries such as the United States are hoarding stockpiles of the vaccine.
Passing the parcel to the states simply won’t work. The government of India must take responsibility of the biggest crisis of the day. The more they delay, the worse the outcome will be. Earlier casualties are the poor who can’t access the vaccine, oxygen, medicines or a hospital bed.
Even the insulated rich are facing the same problem, except the billionaires who have jetted out in their private planes.
The economy will be the second biggest casualty as the India story collapses in a heap of vaccine shortages and government imposed lockdowns to break the cycle of death and infection.
A lockdown gives you time to prepare your health infrastructure and buy more vaccines. That is certainly not happening in India as the lockdown continues.
The pandemic has certainly exposed our reality and blown to smithereens our great power pretensions.
Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning journalist and author of ‘I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army’.