On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a shift in India’s vaccine policy, the second since we embarked on our immunization drive in mid-January. “The Centre is taking back total control of vaccination now,” he declared. Starting 21 June, the Centre will buy 75% of all vaccines made by domestic vax-makers for free distribution to our states, which would no longer need to scout for their own supplies. Private hospitals will be at liberty to buy a quarter of the national output, but can charge a service fee no higher than ₹150 to administer such privately-procured jabs. Re-centralization is a welcome reversal of the approach taken in April amid a ferocious second wave of covid, when state governments and private hospitals were allowed to buy jabs directly, with half the country’s production reserved for the Centre’s campaign. Granting our citizens immunity is an important national goal, after all, and centralized vaccine-buying is the best way to achieve it.
With vaccines scarce, April’s decentralization achieved little other than frustration in state capitals. While a private market can still play a supplementary role once supplies ease, asking states to make purchases was akin to handing them boarding passes for an overbooked plane after its take-off. They were not just hard pressed to arrange funds, especially since they had to shell out twice or more per dose than the Centre, a difference that had no justification, they were also rebuffed by most suppliers. Local producers had their hands full, foreign vax-makers ignored their purchase tenders, and the idea ended up just as sceptics feared—as a burden-transfer exercise. Vaccine scarcity persists, of course. It is reflected in our painfully slow pace of vaccination. We have given only about 233 million doses so far. On daily jabs, we have struggled to cross the 3 million mark, achieved briefly in early April, though we need to go almost thrice as fast to cover our population fully by year-end. Our current rate of around 2.8 million daily jabs is a pick-up from a wee bit over a million in late April, but a let-down all the same. The government has claimed a gushy pipeline from July onwards, thanks to capacity boosts by Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, but it still isn’t clear how much faster we can proceed in the second half of 2021.
It is obvious that the government was caught off-guard by the second wave, with its lack of preparation evident on all fronts. The most baffling aspect of it was how poorly vaccine supplies had been planned, given that covid jabs had to be administered irrespective of the infection curve. Our official seven-day rolling average of daily new cases, which peaked at about 392,000 on 8 May, is now on a downtrend that could shortly take it below 2020’s peak of under 100,000. But this offers us relief only in the context of what India’s healthcare system can handle. The Delta variant of Sars-CoV-2 poses a big threat and we cannot afford another wave going even half as badly as the second. No matter how imperfectly vaccines protect people, they are our best hope and their administration needs to accelerate. For this, centralized bulk-buying is the way forth, even as the Centre widens its roster of suppliers. The aim should be to maximize jab availability. To this end, if we need to legally indemnify foreign vax-makers before they enter the country, let’s do it. Securing our health is the Centre’s job, ultimately, and it must do whatever it takes.
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