ndia, like the rest of the world, is in the grip of a once in a century pandemic snuffing out tens of thousands of lives, inflicting excruciating pain and trauma on millions and ruining countless families. It has been passing through a colossal tragedy with the Centre and the states miserably failing to provide adequate vaccines, oxygen and immunity-inducing drugs to the people, while in some states, bodies of coronavirus victims have been dumped into the rivers for lack of facilities and manpower at crematoriums.
In such a situation it does not behove the ruling party’s national president to try to score political brownie points when the Centre is more responsible for the scandalously inept handling of the pandemic than the states.
From the beginning, the Centre took the matter casually while exhorting people to use horrible and unscientific methods, including clapping and banging thalis, to ward off the lethal virus. Then it tried to claim all the credits for vaccination by monopolising procurement and distribution of vaccines to the states. Even the executive director of the Serum Institute of India (SII) producing 90 per cent of the vaccines – Covishield – in the country rued that the Centre had announced the first vaccination programme for inoculating people of the age group of 45 years and above when the arithmetic of available doses was still being worked out and there was massive shortage. This was followed by complaints by Opposition-ruled states that the Centre was making partisan distribution of the vaccines favouring BJP-ruled states. There was no transparency in the vaccination policy. This made the states raise a chorus of demand for decentralising procurement of vaccines. The BJP-led NDA government generally never relents in the face of Opposition criticism of its functioning and policies, the most glaring case being the controversial farm laws which are yet to be rolled back despite the farmers’ continuing agitation. But, surprisingly it caved in and allowed the states and private hospitals to buy 50 per cent of vaccines from the producers retaining 50 per cent for itself.
Soon, the reasons for the Centre’s uncharacteristic capitulation to Opposition attack became clear. The states, to their utter dismay and consternation, found they could not get supplies from the local producers and their efforts to float global tenders for buying the doses from the international market met with a roadblock. The foreign vaccine producers flatly said they would negotiate only with the Centre and won’t be able to make the vaccines available to the Centre any time soon for their prior commitment and deals with other countries.
The Supreme Court, luckily for the common citizen, did not remain a passive spectator and in a suo motu hearing tore into the Centre’s vaccination policy riddled with holes. After asking tough questions for many discrepancies in its policy, the apex court directed the Union government to submit a report within two weeks on details of procurement, availability, rationale of distribution and pricing of the vaccines in the open market. In the first place, the Centre turned on its head the country’s time tested policy of free universal vaccination being followed since Independence. It forced people in the age group of 18 to 44 to pay for the jabs and then let the market forces determine the prices that ranged from `900 to `1500 per shot on an average. The SC termed such a policy ‘arbitrary and irrational.’
Caught in this vicious circle, the states approached the Centre to take back the responsibility of procurement and distribution of vaccines and arrange for free inoculation for all age groups. More than the pressure by the states, it is the prospect of facing the apex court in the next few days that forced the Centre to yield to this demand. The whole country and the rest of the world have seen how the Centre abdicated its responsibility first of saving the people from the deadly pandemic and then change stand as an afterthought.
Going by the Central statistics, a total of over 23 crore doses have been administered so far. But the number is too small considering the need for vaccinating at least 70 per cent of a population of 135 crore to achieve herd immunity. The toll taken by the second wave has been stupendous and the third wave is threatening to wreak further havoc when even babies in the cradle won’t be spared. Over 2 billion vaccines, enough to cover the entire adult population, it is said, may be available by the end of 2021. But, for this a massive ramping up of production capacities is needed. The Union government does not seem to have any such plans as of now. It needs to make genuine efforts to achieve the target at the correct time. This is no time for self-congratulation and blatant propaganda but for atonement for the wrongs done to the people. This is time for tangible action to protect citizens from the catastrophe now onwards.