A woman gets inoculated with a dose of the Covishield, AstraZeneca-Oxford's Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Mumbai in Mumbai on April 9, 2021. (Representational)(AFP)
A woman gets inoculated with a dose of the Covishield, AstraZeneca-Oxford's Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Mumbai in Mumbai on April 9, 2021. (Representational)(AFP)

The Taste With Vir: Why are vaccines not readily available?

  • In this week's The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes, "Blame it on the (Indian) government’s smug foolish Covid czars who continue to wreck our Covid fightback."
By Vir Sanghvi, Delhi
UPDATED ON APR 09, 2021 05:51 PM IST

As the Covid pandemic surges all over India, our government has told us that this is our own fault. It is a consequence of our refusal to mask up and engage in Covid appropriate behaviour.

To an extent, the government is right. It is nobody’s case that we have all masked up or that we have not congregated in crowded areas.

But two questions need to be asked. Is our disgraceful behaviour the primary reason for this sudden surge? After all we were just as irresponsible a few months ago when numbers started going down. So why is the virus spreading so quickly through our society now?

I don’t know what the answer to that question is because nobody has told us what is going on with this virus.

In the UK, even before the big surge began, the authorities had identified a variant that was more easily transmissible. In India, we are supposed to be working on the answer and though initially, the government spoke in many voices, the official position seems to be that there is no new, more transmissible, variant. Which, you must agree, is a bit odd.

And the second question is more rhetorical than serious. At a time when politicians run amok across the country, not bothering about masks and addressing large, tightly packed, crowds at election rallies, do they really have any right to tell us to wear masks? Are they even conscious of the example they set? Why is it okay to impose night curfews and drive restaurants and other establishments into bankruptcy while, as far as politics is concerned, it is business as usual for our netas?

And then there is the vaccine problem. Experience has shown us that the only way to halt the spread of the pandemic (or to at least slow it down) is by vaccinating as many people as possible.

Also Read | The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Why I am not travelling abroad

We have been slow to do that in India. You cannot argue with the government’s strategy to vaccinate high-risk sectors first. But the point is not priorities. It is speed. Yes, front line workers needed it first. But did we have to restrict all vaccination to just them for so long? Couldn’t we have spread it out faster?

Part of the problem lies with the government’s vaccine czars. You have seen them on TV, smug and seemingly all-powerful. These are the people who wanted to keep such a tight control on everything that they resisted private sector involvement.

Failing to recognise the gravity of the problem, and the need to vaccinate as many people as soon as possible, they acted like small time clerks used to do in the heyday of the license-permit-raj. They flung around phrases like ‘vaccine-equity’ as a way of denying more people vaccines, refused to make vaccines available on a pay-for-jab basis and crippled our program.

More significantly, they underestimated how many doses we needed. There is now a widespread demand to expand the eligibility criteria which they continue to resist with shows of arrogance.

The Health Secretary told a press conference that the government would not give the vaccine to those who wanted it. Instead it would only vaccinate those who “needed it.”

So who needs it? People dying in a Covid hotspot? Well, no. Only people that the health ministry considers eligible.

Also holding forth at the same press conference was VK Paul whose credibility seems miraculously unaffected by his claim last year that the pandemic would level off by May 16. (This was May 16, 2020!) He made a prediction last year at the daily briefing at the Health Ministry assuring us that by May, 2020, the crisis would have largely passed.

He has since apologised and said that he never “ever said that the cases would go down to zero, there is a misunderstanding….” This may be true. But he certainly did forecast the end of the raging pandemic by then.

These are the guys who now decide our strategy. So, are you really surprised by what is going on?

The reason the Health Secretary, Dr Paul and the others are refusing to extend the eligibility criteria is because we don’t have enough vaccines to do it. They clearly did not expect this wave. Or if they did, they failed to plan for it. In March, the Health Minister told us that “India is in the end game of the pandemic”.

He was widely criticised (as it turns out, with justification) but the remark provides an insight into the government’s thinking. The minister and his smug bureaucrats thought it was all coming to an end. Yes, they had missed Dr. Paul’s original May 2020 date but hey! Covid was soon going to end.

The current position of the government of India is that there is no shortage of vaccines. Well, may be.

But why are Covid centers (including government centers) shutting down in Mumbai? Why are so many hospitals in so many states turning away people, explaining that they have no vaccines?

The Centre’s response has been to play politics and blame state governments. This suggests that Delhi believes that state chief ministers are quite happy to not distribute vaccines and let their people die. As a suggestion, this is breath-taking in its mendacity. And it is made worse by the Health Minister’s need to point out that the states that are complaining that vaccines are running out are ruled by the opposition.

Even if there was no failure in the planning and ordering enough vaccines (which of course, there was) there is, undeniably, a massive failure in coordination and distribution. So what happens now?

Well, I reckon they will start approving new vaccines quickly. But producing vaccines take time. And you can’t buy them off the shelf in the international market. The domestic players know how trapped and vulnerable the establishment it. The Serum Institute has now asked for 3000 crores to expand its production facilities, lobbing the ball into the government’s court.

The truth is that there are no quick fixes. So, expect more lectures on how it is all our own fault. More thaali-banging type stunts. The odd utsav. And expect more deaths.

For more stories by Vir Sanghvi read here

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