Health minister Harsh Vardhan changed over Covid-19 crisis
New Delhi: Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday was dropped as India’s minister for health and family welfare, a decision that appeared to stem from his inadequate handling of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, leading to an erosion of trust in the government as health facilities were overrun particularly during the second national wave.
Harsh Vardhan (66), an ENT specialist who practised in east Delhi’s Krishna Nagar until early 1990s, also held the science and technology, and earth sciences portfolios.
The second Covid wave, which took a heavy toll from early April to early June -- with the total number of cases and deaths peaking at 414,188 and 4,192 respective in terms of seven-day averages -- exposed the health ministry’s inability to predict such as massive surge, and gaping holes in country’s health care delivery system. A significant number of patients literally died gasping for breath in their homes for want of a hospital bed (both general and ICU), and essential supplies such as oxygen or medicines.
Experts said the preparedness for, and handling of, the second wave was inadequate.
“We celebrated a little too early; there was insufficient learning from our failures that was quite obvious during the second wave. Health was the core line ministry, and its job should have been to see what was promised regarding health systems was followed through. In the second wave there was a huge gap between what was needed and what was there, which eroded the trust in the government, especially during the second wave,” said Dr Chadrakant Lahariya, a senior public health expert.
Another part of the pandemic response that could not keep pace with the requirements imposed by rise in cases was the pace of vaccination.
While India offered doses in a graded manner in four phases, its procurement policy and delivery mechanism, coupled with vaccine hesitancy and what appeared to be mixed messages by the health ministry, resulted in a roll-out that appeared suboptimal.
For example, in the first three and half months of the campaign (from January 16 to April 30), India administered first doses to 125.38 million people, of which 88% were above the age of 45, while remaining 12% were given to health care and frontline workers in the 18-45 age group. When it expanded the drive to all adults from May 1, India administered 73.04 million first doses to people in the 18-45 age group until June 20. In all, until another policy shift on June 21, 275 million doses were given (225.2 million first and 49.8 second), accounting for 24% of the adult population covered by at least one dose over a five-month period.
To be sure, vaccination picked up after June 21, reaching a high of 6.4 million daily doses (7-day average) on June 26. This pace has slowed down again over the past week to just above 4 million daily doses on average, though India remains confident of achieving 100% vaccination by the year-end.
“The government should have put in advanced purchase orders; what they did instead is purchase what the manufacturers had on their shelves. So the companies produced the doses at their own pace instead of the government dictating how many doses they need and by when. Now, the vaccination drive needs to focus on people who are likely to die if they get the infection; something which we were doing in January and February when we should have been carrying out large scale vaccination campaign to prevent the second wave,” said Dr Jacob John, former head of the department of virology at Christian Medical College, Vellore.
Doctors also complained about the lack of adequate support from the government.
“As the health minister of this country, he should have led from the front, especially when dealing with safety concerns of people from the medical fraternity who were managing the crisis in adverse conditions. He couldn’t give assurances to health care professionals that their safety will be ensured. The PM himself had to intervene and speak to doctors at least twice, the recent being on the doctors’ day. Ideally, this should have been done through the health minister,” said Dr JA Jayalal, president, Indian Medical Association.
The health minister also made several gaffes in the form of statements that did not stem from adequate scientific knowledge.
In March 2021, he said that India was in the “endgame” of Covid-19 pandemic. “We are in the endgame of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. Unlike most other countries, we have a steady supply of Covid-19 vaccines that are safe with proven immunogenicity and efficacy.”
A month later, cases were at an all-time high.
During his tenure, Harsh Vardhan also received flak for endorsing alternative therapy products. He was present at the relaunch of Coronil termed to be “first evidence-based medicine for coronavirus”; and endorsed Ayurvedic Covid-19 treatment and Ayush 64.
“We could have done much better than what we have done; a lot of unnecessary animosity could have been avoided,” said Jayalal.
Harsh Vardhan did not comment on the matter till the time of print.