COVID-19 Vaccination In India Whither?

More than a month passed since India launched the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive from the 16th of January 2021, and so far, not even 10 million people have been vaccinated. India figures last accounting for less than 1% of population vaccinated in the table of nations carrying on inoculation drive, at the moment. The first priority target covers 30 million of healthcare and frontline workers, next 270 million of citizens over the age of fifty and/or people with comorbidities and then the rest of the nearly 1.4 billion population of the country. At the present rate of vaccination, it will take more than 10 years to complete the process. This is absurd even to think on these lines, because we are dealing with a pandemic that can destroy us again thanks to its very clever virus and the variants.


Everything seemed well thought out and prioritized in the beginning: an extreme sense of urgency and the consequent hurry had been shown by the Government of India in getting its vaccines ready at the earliest; the new year 2021 started with the approval of Covishield, the Indian version of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, on the New Year Day and the approval of the India-made Covaxin on the second day of the year; the vaccination was going to start anytime soon amid a heady mix of euphoria and optimism. However, the days that followed turned out to be somewhat disappointing. There are various reasons for this.


First, the sense of suspicion even in the minds of medical doctors after the Indian drug regulator gave its seemingly hurried approval to Covaxin without the results of the final phase clinical trials and an efficacy rate. Besides, there was no option to choose between the vaccines for any state or authority of the country and there were initial hiccups in terms of a number of instances of serious side-effects and two or three deaths after vaccination. The willingness to get vaccinated thus got impacted right from the first day, and it continues till today.


Second, after the Indian COVID-19 peak in September 2020 the graph of infections started flattening distinctly from the period during December-January, and with the exception of Kerala and Maharashtra almost all other states have managed to come back to near normalcy, particularly the north eastern states. This, combined with the low fatality rate and the ever-rising recovery figures, created a mixed feeling of safety and defiance in the minds of the people thus reducing their willingness or urgency to get vaccinated. Most of them even started discarding all Coronavirus prevention norms. Such a phenomenon is unique to India only, this has been anticipated and observed in many countries of the world.


Thirdly, the Government did not seem to keep up with that sense of urgency as the drive went on. The health executives were very prompt in denying that the initial cases of serious side-effects and deaths were related to the vaccination. However, they did not initiate any public service campaigns to encourage people to get inoculated despite there being no reports of any adverse impact in the following weeks. The expected cooperation between the central and the state governments also did not materialize to the desired extent. Add to this the political differences, cross propaganda and the preparations for the assembly elections coming up in five states. In fact, any implementation of any scheme in India has always been impacted by political/ideological, religious and caste differences. It was exactly in this scenario that we thought earlier that vaccine was the only solution to end the pandemic in India.


Last but not the least, there has been a rather disproportionate focus shift from vaccination to the export of vaccines to other nations. This is understandable for an economy so badly hit by the pandemic, but this is not the time for promoting export of ‘India-made’ vaccines. As per protocols of the World Health Organization vaccines must be developed and shared as much as possible among nations, particularly the poor and developing ones; but this does not mean that vaccinating one’s own population in the fastest way possible is not a priority.


In a positive development, the president of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Uday Kotak, has called upon the Government of India to allow private sector involvement in the vaccination drive and to allow the corporates vaccinate their own employees while following the Government’s priority categorization protocols. This makes perfect sense. If the chain of private hospitals across the country gets permission to vaccinate patients on payment basis the overall drive would get the much-needed fillip. The Government is reportedly thinking on these lines and the vaccines are likely to be thrown in the open market by the year end.


However, waiting for even a year seems to be risky at this juncture. At the moment, no doubt, the situation is under absolute control except for Kerala and Maharashtra, but cases of infections of at least three COVID-19 variants, namely the United Kingdom, South Africa and the Brazil variant, have been detected in India, and the elusive virus would hardly take any time to create havoc again. Therefore, it is extremely important to speed up the vaccination drive by making the vaccines available at a larger scale and also allowing more vaccines like the Russian Sputnik V and other indigenous ones come into the scenario.


Distractions, perhaps calculated, like the suicide/murder of a film star last year, and now the ‘toolkit conspiracy’ should be avoided to put the focus back on the fight against the pandemic, and major upheavals like the nearly three-month old farmers’ agitation should be treated in a sympathetic and solution-oriented way, instead of trying to break those up through more chains of distractions. 


At the same time, all governments must undertake extensive public awareness campaigns that are visible as headlines across the internet, the social media, the print media and the news channels to increase the willingness of citizens to get vaccinated. They cannot realistically expect common people to flock continuously on to their specific information sites. The largescale misinformation or fake news surging in the social media platforms have also to be stopped by the respective governments of the states in close coordination with the central government. A person above fifty or sixty doesn’t have any idea at the moment about when his/her turn for inoculation is going to come. This must change at the earliest.


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