Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to observe ‘tika utsav’, or vaccination festival, from 11-14 April, which mark the birth anniversaries of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar, was one of the many awareness programmes that the BJP government has announced since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government’s view is that greater awareness about vaccination gives India a better chance to control the spread of the coronavirus.
It is unfortunate that the vaccination drive has run into a controversy, predominantly for two reasons. One issue is whether we should be exporting and donating large quantities of vaccines to other countries during a surge in cases. The other issue is the low number of vaccinations being carried out by some states. Both are avoidable, especially at a time when tackling the coronavirus pandemic should be India’s priority.
Fruitful engagement with countries near and far is part of any foreign policy outreach and it can be done in many ways depending on the situation and opportunities, both generated through efforts and/or made available due to changing circumstances. The pandemic provided a great opportunity for New Delhi to reach out to the world with vaccines. In less than two months since vaccine diplomacy began, the Modi government has reportedly distributed nearly 66 million doses of vaccines to 91 countries.
This is highly commendable because no other country in the world has matched this kind of developmental assistance in managing the pandemic so far. PM Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have both called this outreach as “vaccine maitri” (friendship). The vaccine diplomacy should be seen as part of India’s soft power, which has the potential to give New Delhi a coveted strategic space in the emerging world order.
Vaccination, not blame game
On the domestic front, the Covid pandemic appears to have gone unchecked and has brought the entire country under its deleterious effects. It is unfortunate that as the number of cases are mounting, claims and counter-claims of negligence are being traded by both state governments and the Union government. This is no way to fight the pandemic, it will lead us nowhere. The Modi government has found fault with some state governments for casual handling of the pandemic and, according to some, it is more than a mere coincidence that all the three the Centre has called out are non-BJP governments. While this is so, there is no gainsaying on the part of the state governments to blame the Centre for their acts of mishandling the pandemic.
The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) gave ‘emergency use authorisation’ (EUA) to two ‘Made in India’ vaccines — Covaxin by Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) and Covishield by the Serum Institute of India (SII) — as part of the Covid-19 management policy. The Russian-made Sputnik V, which scores 91.6 per cent in terms of effectiveness, has already been granted permission to be used in India. Vaccines that have EUA from USFDA, EMA, UK MHRA, PMDA Japan or those listed in WHO (Emergency Use Listing), will also be allowed for public use after fulfilling some mandatory requirements. According to Gavi, the vaccine alliance, “there are now 88 Covid-19 vaccine candidates undergoing clinical trials and 184 candidates in pre-clinical development”.
Together, these will expand the basket of vaccines for domestic use. The imported vaccines will cost much more than the ones being produced domestically due to import duty and GST. The Centre should ensure a steady supply of these imported vaccines so that there is no shortage of the second dose. The Modi government should also seriously consider removing the cap on vaccine price. Those who can afford to pay can then subsidise free distribution for the poor and the needy.
Fresh trouble brewing
Strict measures are needed to arrest the spread of the virus besides bringing more people under the cover of the vaccine. There is no logic in the police running after people without face masks and standing by to protect political leaders addressing mass gatherings. Considering that the new strains of Covid-19 affect children and the youth, there is no reason for any state to force students to sit for the board examinations. The unfortunate reality is that the pandemic has ruined one academic year and is all set to ruin the next one too.
The other controversy is even more unfortunate. The Maharashtra government has scored low on its vaccination target. In fact, thickly populated states like Maharashtra and cities like Mumbai should have gone on an overdrive to reach out to as many citizens as possible. There is an urgent need to reduce the mortality rate and also the pace of the spread of the pandemic. It is now common knowledge that the vaccine is not a permanent cure. Yet, the vaccine has been a success on two fronts — medical and psychological.
Medically speaking, though, a vaccine is not a permanent cure, it limits the virility of the disease and practically negates mortality. But the flip side is more disturbing. It gives a false sense of wellbeing and prompts one to lower their guard. The all-party meeting in Maharashtra decided to tackle the issue without total lockdown but with strict enforcement of restriction. The Uttarakhand government could have set an example by discouraging mass congregation for the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. With more than 1,700 positive cases detected so far and with officials maintaining that the Kumbh Mela will not be cut short, the situation could soon go out of control even as the government realises how impossible it is to track the infected persons.
It is never too late to apply the brakes on holding mass gatherings and discipline the people. But the governments need to set an example before pontificating discipline to the masses.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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