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State mulls free vax shots only for poor

With four days to go for the vaccination of all adults to kick off, Maharashtra is unlikely to roll the drive out for those in the 18-44 age category in a big way from May 1, owing to challenges related to supply and lack of clarity on whether it would provide free vaccines to all
By Swapnil Rawal, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON APR 27, 2021 12:41 AM IST

With four days to go for the vaccination of all adults to kick off, Maharashtra is unlikely to roll the drive out for those in the 18-44 age category in a big way from May 1, owing to challenges related to supply and lack of clarity on whether it would provide free vaccines to all. A day after Maharashtra ministers announced that the government will provide free vaccines to beneficiaries over age 18, state health minister Rajesh Tope said that it may not be possible, adding that the department will move a proposal to provide free vaccine jabs to the poor only.

Maharashtra has around 53-55 million people in the 18-44 category and the cost to inoculate them is expected to be around 7,000 crore, according to Tope. With vaccines available in short supply, Maharashtra could kick off the drive in a staggered manner, senior government officials said. A panel of senior officials, headed by chief secretary Sitaram Kunte, is working on negotiations with manufacturers, ensuring adequate and uninterrupted supply and also deciding the beneficiaries for free vaccines.

Meanwhile, Tope said his department is moving a proposal for the state cabinet meeting, that is expected to be held on Tuesday or Wednesday, seeking free vaccines for the poor in the 18-44 category.

Tope admitted that there are two views within ministers seeking free vaccination for all. “We have proposed that the economically backward class or the weaker sections of the society should be given free vaccinations at government hospitals. There are two views on this; some are of the opinion that 100% [of vaccines] should be given free of cost, but I do not think it is possible. The vaccination programme for 18-44 ages will require about 7,000 crore to 7,500 crore. It is not a small amount,” Tope said.

Senior ministers are also saying that there is no agitation from chief minister Uddhav Thackeray over providing free vaccine shots for all. However, a final decision will be made by Wednesday and announcement is likely before the drive kicks off. On Sunday, minority affairs minister Nawab Malik announced that state will provide free vaccines. Another NCP minister Jitendra Awhad also tweeted the same. Shiv Sena minister Aaditya Thackeray, too, announced free vaccines, but later deleted the tweet. Since then, the party has tread cautiously on the topic. Sena leader and chief spokesperson of the party Sanjay Raut refused to comment on free vaccines, stating that it is the government’s decision.

A senior bureaucrat said that the committee under Kunte is also looking at how to manage the funds by diverting it through other schemes. He also added that the start to the vaccination for all adults later this week is expected to remain “symbolic”. “We are still to negotiate with any of the foreign manufacturers only then we will know the cost of the inoculation. The chief minister and finance minister have both said that cost is not a hindrance as vaccination is a priority. Besides the cost, they should be able to provide adequate stock without any delay… The vaccination of 18-44 will start from May 1, but it will remain symbolic due to short supply,” the bureaucrat said requesting anonymity. They state is also preparing to handle the crowds at the centres, for it to not result in chaos or a super-spreader event, considering cases are still high across the state.

Speaking about the state’s preparations for May 1, Tope said no manufacturer has committed to delivering stock so far. He said the state will procure stock of Indian companies as well as negotiate cost with foreign brands to bring it around the rates of Indian vaccines, he said. “There could be a law-and-order issue and huge queues at every centre. People want to get vaccinated now looking at the deaths, but the availability of vaccine is a real challenge. None of them [manufacturers] have vaccines now. They are offering stock after a month; that too 10 million every month, but it is very slow,” Tope said.

He further added, “We will procure the vaccines available in India, similarly, we will negotiate with the foreign manufacturers, will try and bring it down Indian vaccine prices. We will need foreign vaccines as well to inoculate people faster.”

The health department is also planning to procure vaccines to inoculated people the remaining citizens over age 45. Tope said the Centre is not “supporting” the pace of the inoculation state intends to. As of April 25, the state has administered first dose to over 10 million people under the category, while 923,971 people from the category have taken their second jab.

Tope said, “A high number of people still remain to be vaccinated in above 45-category. The Government of India is not really supporting to the extent it should have. Our demand [for vaccine] is 800,000 daily, but they are providing 100,000 or 200,000. Many centres are kept closed or we have to function on alternative days. These are vulnerable groups; we have to ensure that they get vaccinated first and faster.

“Though, this is a national programme and that Mr [prime minister Narendra] Modi has assured adequate supply for this category, but the rate is very slow. We are proposing to spend to procure vaccines for this category as well. It will expedite the programme so that they are safe. The Cabinet will consider this proposal.”

Leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already announced free vaccination for all, but there is one-upmanship going on among MVA ministers. “PM has made it clear that Centre will vaccinate all eligible people free of cost. However, the states that want to carry out vaccination in an accelerated manner, they can procure vaccines from the market. There is one-upmanship going on in three ruling parties and therefore, there are such demands [of free vaccines], there are tweets on it and later being deleted. The government should prepare a proper policy as the drive will start from May 1. There is no coordination between the ministers,” Fadnavis said.

Maharashtra achieved a landmark by inoculating over 500,000 beneficiaries in a day on Monday. The state is expected to go past 15-million mark soon, the state health department said. the state has vaccinated 14,342,716 beneficiaries. Maharashtra’s previous high was recorded on April 3 when it vaccinated 462,735 people in a day.

An epidemiologist who is attached to PD Hinduja Hospital, Dr Lancelot Pinto, said that the Centre and State governments have to work on collaboration to achieve the feat of flattening the curve and achieve herd immunity.

“India’s median age is 27, so we cannot achieve herd immunity by only focusing on the 45+ age group. We need to aggressively immunise the young population. Therefore, the governments definitely need to work closely,” he said.

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