The Taste With Vir | Coronavirus Pandemic India: Telling lies about vaccines
In this week's The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes, "We messed up our vaccine program so lies are now being told to explain away the deaths this led to."
It is now generally accepted that we have screwed up our vaccination drive. Even writers and public figures who are not unsympathetic to the BJP have complained about the failure of the vaccine program.
It matters because vaccines are the best weapon we have to fight the Covid Pandemic. We have always known this. And yet, we misused the vaccine drive for political purposes, did not order enough vaccines and are now in a situation where --- because vaccines cannot be bought off the shelf --- we have to wait months to find a solution to the crisis.
Even then, we will be too late. Most vaccines have two doses taken around a month or more apart. For immunity to properly kick in, it takes another two weeks. So assume we do get more vaccines by July (as the government claims), it will only give those vaccinated immunity in September.
The government’s defenders realise that this is where its incompetence is hardest to justify. So a campaign of untruths has been launched to justify the failures. Almost all of the claims made on the government’s behalf are lies or exaggerations.
Here is the truth.
Claim: This is no shortage. Non-BJP states have messed up the distribution.
Truth: This claim was advanced by the Health Minister and then, shockingly echoed by his officials who are supposed to be apolitical. On social media, trolls used it to attack Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
We know now for sure that this claim is an outright lie because the shortages have been reported across most states including those ruled by the BJP.
Since the shortage has become undeniable, the government has been forced to stop blaming Thackeray and other Chief Ministers.
Claim: More recently, the BJP’s IT Cell has blamed the crisis on vaccine hesitancy. Everything would have been fine if there had been no hesitancy we are told.
Truth: This is nonsense. Yes, there is vaccine hesitancy all over the world, most notably in the United States. The consequence of vaccine hesitancy is that vaccines lie around unused. This happened in the US.
In India, the opposite is true. If we had a lot of vaccine hesitancy, we would have no shortage of vaccines. In fact, we face a huge shortage.
Even a ten-year-old (though possibly not JP Nadda who has advanced this lie) can see the contradiction in saying: “People did not take the vaccine which is why we ran out of it.”
Claim: The opposition discouraged people from taking the vaccine.
Truth: This is based on questions about Covaxin, the vaccine developed by the government (through ICMR) and Bharat Biotech. Covaxin was approved without the third stage trials that are considered mandatory for all vaccines. It was perfectly legitimate to ask why the process had been short-circuited.
The government responded by saying that this was a crisis so we could dispense with full testing. Well, maybe. But why not extend that same principle to other vaccines? There were several internationally-approved vaccines that were not given the same easy ride and some ultimately gave up seeking approval in India, or were kept hanging on.
If you can dispense with full testing because this is a crisis , then why not extend the same principle to the world’s leading vaccines?
Claim: The Opposition opposed ‘India’s own vaccines.’
Truth: It is this stuff about “India’s own vaccine” which has got us into this mess. Vaccines are meant to save lives, not promote a political agenda.
Yet, from the very beginning our vaccine program has been politicised. In July 2020, the Director of ICMR directed that Covaxin (which ICMR had partnered) should be ready for launch on August 15.
This is not how vaccines are tested or approved so the intention clearly was to have a vaccine ready by the time the Prime Minister made his Independence Day speech.
Of course the deadline was unrealistic and it did not happen but it offers one indication of how organisations like the ICMR had already become tools of the government’s propaganda program.
Then, the Prime Minister decided to announce that our success in developing two vaccines was a symbol of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. We were told that India would handle the crisis with Indian vaccines.
Apart from the naked attempt to win political points from what should have been a life-saving exercise, the statement was also untrue. The vaccine made by Serum Institute was developed by Oxford University and licensed to AstraZeneca. Calling it an Indian vaccine is like saying Coca Cola is a symbol of an Atmanirbhar Bharat because it is bottled in India.
Next, eager to associate the government with the vaccination program, the Prime Minister’s photo was put on every vaccination certificate. This is unprecedented in a democratic country (Boris Johnson does not put his photo on these things, nor do Joe Biden or even Imran Khan).
It was done because, from the start, the vaccine program had a clear agenda: identify the government with a self-reliant Indian vaccine.
It wasn’t the Opposition that played politics with the vaccine program. It was the BJP.
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Claim: It was not possible for us to procure vaccines from abroad.
Truth: Actually, it was. But to have done so would have conflicted with the essence of the Atmanirbhar Bharat approach. As far back as November 2020, the Health Minister doubted the ability of Pfizer to manufacture its vaccine in India and declared proudly that “India may not need them”. It was also possible to have procured the Sputnik V Vaccine but we refused to rush ahead.
As the crisis has mounted, that position has been junked. We are now talking to Pfizer, importing Sputnik and looking for more foreign vaccines. Unfortunately, this cannot be done at the last minute. If we had ordered more vaccines from foreign manufacturers at the time where the Health Minister was saying we did not need Pfizer, we would not be in this mess today.
Claim: The export of vaccines has helped India’s global image.
Truth: Has it? Many of the countries we so generously gave vaccines to are now preventing Indians from even selling foot on their territory. The latest is the Maldives which banned all Indians visitors this week.
Clearly, the export of vaccines was a political gesture. Even though some of the exports were under the Serum Institute’s obligation to send the AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries, the government clubbed these with its own gifts of vaccines and claimed India had become the world’s vaccine supplier. The initiative was always linked to the Prime Minister personally.
In March, the Health Minister declared “Unlike other countries, we have a steady supply of vaccines,” adding the mandatory praise of the Prime Minister: “We are fortunate to have a global leader who insisted that vaccines should be provided.”
The Foreign Minister (who really should know better) declared that we were able to give away these vaccines because we had managed Covid so well because our success “resulted from the Prime Minister’s leadership.”
Claim: In any case, we only exported a small number of vaccines.
Truth: That’s a lie. The Indian Express has calculated that we exported so many vaccines that (at the current rate) we could have inoculated nationwide for 30 days. Put another way, we exported enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of Delhi and Mumbai with the full two doses.
Small amount, etc.?
Claim: What can India do? Production capacity is limited.
Truth: Indeed it is. But we knew that right from the beginning.
We were told (and believed) that India supplies 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines. This is misleading for two reasons. First the figure is based on a different statistic: that India supplies 60 per cent of the vaccines that UNICEF uses. This may be true. But UNICEF is not the whole world.
Secondly, we produce nowhere near 60 per cent of the world’s Covid vaccines. Facilities making other vaccines cannot be transformed overnight to those required for say, Covishield. That takes time and money. We did not bother to stump up the money or act in time.
So, even at the beginning of the pandemic it was clear to anybody who had done 6th standard arithmetic that we did not have the domestic capacity to vaccinate our adult population.
We could have expanded capacity. The Serum Institute had been asking for funds to do that. For all the patriotic hype about Covaxin, it has a tiny production compared to Serum Institute’s capacity. We could have easily licensed other manufacturers to make Covaxin.
We did no such thing.
Claim: It is the fault of the states for asking for a liberalised vaccine procurement regime.
Truth: This is a red herring. We had run short of vaccines long before we involved the states in procurement.
Claim: The Prime Minister bowed to pressure and allowed all adults to be eligible for the vaccine. It is the fault of those who put pressure on him.
Truth: The poor dear! The fact is that the Prime Minister is a strong leader. He doesn’t bow to pressure from anyone. He has refused to sack the idiots who got us into this mess. He has refused to admit to any failings in the program. He has ignored the furore over Central Vista.
But on this one issue, his nerve failed him and the poor man gave in?
Even if he was responding to pressure (Ha!) this was still his decision. He expanded the eligibility criteria when there were not enough vaccines.
As he must have known.
Claim: Nobody could have predicted the Second Wave which is why we don’t have enough vaccines.
Truth: Actually no. Even if there was no Second Wave, we were still intending to vaccinate our adult population. And we would still have run out of vaccines.
Besides, the Second Wave was not unexpected. The UK, which recognised that it had a dangerous new variant locked down and stepped up vaccination when its Second Wave was beginning to hit. In India we failed to identify our new variant, then denied its existence for too long and then ran out of vaccines.
Claim: The world has appreciated our handling of the pandemic.
Truth: Nobody has. The general consensus, summed up Dr. Anthony Fauci, is that we let our guard down, became smug and let the Second Wave kill off so many of our people.
We screwed up because our vaccine program is in the hands of pompous, incompetent idiots and the government put politics and image-building over the lives of Indians.
And so, people died.
For more stories by Vir Sanghvi read here