The new vaccine policy needs an overhaul
Indulging in eerie Covid statistics of daily numbers of tests and cases is facile, futile, and a façade. Facile because these numbers are a function of inadequate testing and flawed reporting; futile because they do not help solve the crisis; and a façade because they hide real human agony and distract attention away from the core issue.
Instead, there is only one number we need to focus on every single day in the fight against Covid.
Seven per cent. That is the percentage of Indian adults who have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine thus far. The government’s single-minded pursuit should be to see how the 7% figure can grow to at least 75% in the shortest possible time.
To this effect, on April 19, the Narendra Modi government announced a “liberalised and accelerated Covid-19 vaccination strategy” with much fanfare. Alas, it turned out to be a confused and complicated strategy that threatens to derail a smooth vaccination roll-out. Here is why.
As per this new vaccination strategy, if you are a 45-year-old Tamilian who wants to get vaccinated after May 1, you will have to first wade through these myriad set of options — a free vaccine offered by the Government of India (GOI) in a public hospital, or a vaccine for a price offered by the GOI at a private hospital, or a vaccine offered by the government of Tamil Nadu that may either be free or charged depending on the rules in the state; or a priced vaccine offered by a private hospital of their own accord.
If you are a vaccine maker, you have to create two equal categories of all the vaccines produced — one to be sold to GOI at a fixed price and another to be sold to state governments or a private player at a different price, which will presumably be higher than the price offered to GOI.
If this was not head-spinning enough, state governments can buy the vaccine directly from the manufacturer at a price different from what the Centre pays but most states are starved of funds. They will need to borrow money to buy the vaccine for which, as per constitutional norms, they have to seek permission from the Centre.
Different prices for the same product may be the norm for airline tickets but for the critical task of getting a majority of Indians vaccinated quickly, the new vaccination strategy is an abominable aberration. It does not require an economist to infer that creating multiple fixed price systems and buying channels for the same product will inevitably lead to people trying to arbitrage and create parallel unofficial markets. Covid vaccination is a national mission of utmost importance and urgency, not some trivial stock market type activity to match buyers and sellers of vaccines.
Instead, here is a plan that the government must adopt to smoothen the vaccine roll-out strategy.
One, the Centre must fix a uniform standard price for all vaccines transparently, after negotiations with all the vaccine manufacturers. Two, state governments and private players must be allowed to procure vaccines directly as per their requirements, at this fixed price.
Three, the Centre must facilitate unconditional borrowing for the state governments for the purpose of Covid vaccination through a special borrowing window with the Reserve Bank of India for a specific period of time, at a specific rate of interest, and an amount for each state depending on the size of their population (not the number of Covid cases, which is merely a function of testing).
Four, states should be free to roll out their own vaccination strategy as they deem fit. Private players can also set up their own facilities for vaccination. Five, the Centre should then play the role of the mediator and judge, monitoring and measuring the pace of vaccination in each state and district through the CoWin platform. This information should be published daily, which can spur healthy competition across states and districts to rapidly vaccinate their residents.
And six, the Centre takes on the responsibility to ensure adequate availability of vaccines through negotiations with vaccine makers across the world, and lets states and private players focus on implementing the vaccination process for all citizens.
It is a testament to the spirit of the free enterprise of the modern world that we have a plethora of choices of scientifically proven vaccines available in such a short time to put an end to the Covid-19 nightmare. Our task now is to focus on getting the maximum number of Indians vaccinated in the shortest possible time. The principles that made the vaccine available to humankind are exactly the ones that will also enable us to achieve this objective — unleashing the spirit of competitive dynamics of various states with the soft-touch guiding hand of the Centre.
Covid-19 has not just taken thousands of lives away from us but has also ruptured the economic structure of our society and left profound scars that will take a long time to heal. The defeat of Covid is merely the first step in the long and arduous climb back to normalcy for India. We will then have to repair and mend our broken economy through a series of bold measures aimed directly at the people in the form of income supplements and job creation through investments.
Vaccines are the surest way to defeat Covid-19. Victory against Covid is possible only through a sensible and simple vaccination strategy, not a convoluted and complicated one like the government has announced.
Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and senior office-bearer of the Congress
The views expressed are personal