Sunday, August 14th, 2022 13:07:29

Vaccine Politics : Don’t Politicise the fight against Corona Virus

By Sudesh Verma
Updated: May 25, 2021 11:35 am

Crestfallen Opposition has launched a tirade against Modi on one issue or the other. Nothing sticks since the Prime Minister has done his homework well and is way ahead of them. It would be good if they just follow the PM and take Corona Virus as their enemy.

By 21 May 2021, India has already vaccinated 19.32 crore people. The Centre had earmarked Rs 35,000 crore in budget for vaccination and money would never be a problem. All those in the age group of 45 and above are being vaccinated free by the Central Government. There is a plan to have 2 billion vaccine doses from August to December so that the younger generation in the age group of 18-44 can also be vaccinated. Covaxin has already started trials for vaccines for those in age group of 2-18 years. And we should be preparing ourselves for vaccine drives in schools anytime soon.

Never before the country had worked at this speed to vaccinate entire population to prepare the country to bring life back to normal. Not only India has its own vaccine and joined the elite club of vaccine producers, the plan to vaccinate the entire population is already being rolled out. Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik are already there and more are likely to come depending on the bridge trials new players undertake.

It is sad that such a gargantuan task being undertaken by the Union Government is being undermined by opposition parties due to their hatred for the Prime Minister they cannot bring down during elections. Instead of focusing on the task in hand and stick to the timeline of vaccination, they are trying to show that there is a vaccine crisis. The attempt is to create a wedge between different sections of the society and present the Union Government in poor light.

It is tragic that they need to be reminded what Dr Dr Anthony Fauci, Medical Advisor to the POTUS (Joe Biden), said. He said that despite the divisiveness, the common enemy is the virus and not each other. This spirit is missing in Indian politicians who are paranoid of Narendra Modi. The discovery of toolkit officially released by the BJP points out to the ways the main opposition has devised to try to defame the Government. This is a new low of political discourse in the country. In their devilish enthusiasm to attempt to score political points, they ignore the negative impact their murky tricks may produce on people.

The Prime Minister. who worked overtime to ensure that the scientists come out with vaccine earlier than expected, is being accused of not making enough efforts to meet the demand for vaccines. One should not forget that Rotavirus vaccine that prevents diarrhea in young children came to India in 2016 even when the United States had it in 2006. The Hepatitis B Vaccine was available in the world commercially in 1982 but India launched this in 2002. Polio Vaccine was approved by the WHO in 1955 and its oral version came in 1961 but India launched this in 1978. On Covid-19, the WHO gave first emergency use authorization for vaccine on 31 December 2020. India got its first vaccine in January 2021 and it had already launched its vaccination programme on 16 January 2021.

Pm Modi has taken personal interest and encouraged scientists on vaccine development, He had set up a task force of experts in April 2020. Covishield and indigenously produced Covaxin became the first two vaccines given clearance for emergency use in January 2021. Yet the Prime Minister was criticized and made fun of when he announced on 15 August 2020 that India would soon have its own vaccines. Critics said he was putting pressure for early vaccine.

The government removed bureaucratic bottlenecks and helped fast-track trials of vaccine efficacy. CEO of Serum Institute of India that brought Covishield to India Adar Poonawala did not mince words in praise of Modi. He said “Thanks to your speedy and timely approvals, Narendramodiji, India will have a made in India vaccine for a made in China virus”. He was appreciative of the personal attention the PM had given for faster clearance at every step.

Instead of celebrating vaccine development, opposition leaders reacted with bitterness. Some called it haste and dubbed it as vaccine nationalism. Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor called the approval “unseemly haste”. He said: “chest-thumping ‘vaccine nationalism’ – combined with the PM’s ‘self-reliant India’ campaigning – trumped common sense and a generation of established scientific protocols”. “Jingoism is no substitute for common sense,” he added. While the Left parties joined the criticisms, the Samajwadi Party crossed all lines when its leader Akhilesh Yadav termed it “BJP vaccine”.

These leaders were scared that such a vaccine with full credit to the Prime Minister would further cloud their political resurrection. Ever since then, their single point agenda has been to damage Narendra Modi’s image. Thousands of articles and media reports came opposing Vaccine use. Objections were raised to use of Covaxin even when the immunization programme was launched on 16 January. All non-BJP, non-NDA Governments joined hands in opposing the use of Covaxin. It is an irony that the same people started making urgent demand for the vaccines ignoring the protocol that was originally set for vaccination.

Who should be vaccinated first is an issue that was clear from day one. A system was devised based on international feedback and procedures adopted in others parts of the globe. People took the jab when their turn came. Even the Prime Minister waited for his turn. There was no rush, no scramble. Health-workers and frontline workers, persons suffering from comorbidities and those above 45 years were to be given the jab after which the turn for others would come.

That everyone would be vaccinated was declared by the Central Government in no unequivocal terms. The expert Group was already mulling over extending vaccination for others but it wanted to ensure a smooth supply line and uniform policy. To prevent the society from getting divided on vaccine and to enable faster vaccination, the Union Government on 19 April announced vaccination for 18-44 years category from 1 May. The haste was due to the fact that opposition parties started doing politics and made untenable demand to vaccinate all adult population at the same time.

There was bound to be non-availability of vaccine since it takes time to ramp up production when the entire world is facing vaccine shortage. Instead of appreciating this, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raised the issue of vaccine export. “While our nation is facing vaccine starvation, more than 6 crore (60 million) vaccines have been imported,” he said.

This was an irresponsible statement since vaccine export was a part of the commitment to GAVI Vaccine alliance that takes care of poor countries and is applicable to all vaccine manufacturers. Indian vaccines were used by other countries to vaccinate their healthcare workers and also the UN peacekeeping force. The export did not even hurt the original plan besides bringing lot of goodwill internationally. When the severity of the second wave was realized, the exports were stopped and a special waiver taken. The entire world came to the rescue of India in various forms.

When the opposition could not find anything to beat with, they raised the issue of differential pricing of the vaccine. The two vaccine manufacturers were to supply 50 per cent of their production exclusively to the Central Government and to keep the rest 50 per cent for State Governments and open market. The States could life their quota directly from vaccine manufacturers based on rational formula applicable to all. They were also allowed to float tenders for procuring Vaccine from other manufacturers. The States had demanded a liberalized procurement policy but they started finding fault with this as well since they realized that they would not get vaccine cheaper in international market than what was offered to them domestically by two vaccine manufacturers.

Why should the State buy at price different than the one at which the Centre was buying? While the Union Government got a price of Rs 150 per vaccine, the States had to pay Rs 300 and private players Rs 600. This was a way to help vaccine manufacturers make some profit. Differential pricing is a way to encourage private players to keep some margin so that there is incentive to them to invest in expansion of capacity. This would also help other international players to come to India. If the Government fixes the price for all, this would drive away others and also prohibit investment in research by pharma companies. Competition may bring the prices further down in the long run. Low pricing to the Centre should have been an issue since all the vaccines were going to the States to administer.

Since all States have declared that they would give vaccine to people free of cost, the end users would not be impacted. The States should be ready to share the burden. For example, Delhi that spends crores to on advertisements could easily spend money to buy vaccines. When Uttar Pradesh, that has a population of about 20 crore, can purchase vaccine why can’t other States? Vaccination by private players to those who can afford would further ease the burden on the States.

Federalism is shared concept. The Union Government is under tremendous pressure due to massive investment need for infrastructure. This year alone more than Rs 3 lakh crore was spent on health. Besides the Emergency need due to Covid such as extending help to States to strengthen their response system, the Government is also setting up hospitals and healthcare system all across the country.

None of the criticisms would hold ground if proper context is understood. Never before the country witnessed such a situation where the entire population which is almost five times of the United States need to be vaccinated. Most States have declared they would give vaccine free, including the BJP ruled States. Since federalism is a shared concept, they should take the tab now.

Instead of getting excited with their own echo system that thrives on anti-Modi propaganda, the opposition would do well to follow the norms evolved by the Centre and work overtime to provide succor to people. They should know that the Prime Minister has prepared a timeline after due consideration of all issues including infrastructure needs. He has better advise than what is available to most opposition leaders. It is time to work unitedly and not fritter away the advantage India has.


By Sudesh Verma

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