India reached the one billion COVID-19 vaccinations milestone this morning. It is indeed great news and a big salute to the less paid ordinary health workers in the interiors of India for this feat.
The government wants all of India’s 944 million adults to get vaccinated this year. Around three-quarters of adults in the country of 1.3billion people have had one shot and around 30 percent are fully vaccinated, the government says.
The five states that have administered the highest number of doses are Uttar Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh.
India’s milestone comes months after a huge spike in cases in April and May, when more than 400,000 infections and 4,000 deaths were reported per day and the country’s health infrastructure was overwhelmed. Cases have now sharply fallen, with fewer than 15,000 infections per day, and most activity has returned to normal. Mumbai, where cases peaked in the second surge, recently reported zero deaths in a day for the first time since the pandemic began.
Moving ahead it is important to note to gloat in self-glory and look at some pertinent issues in this context, which a laudatory media shall not be raised today on behalf of the nation.
First, around 250 million adult Indians have not got even a single dose of the vaccine, and they are mostly the most marginalized sections of the population, urban or rural, and a lot of many tribals.
Second, the 100 crores doses include both doses. The government itself says that only 30% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated, and that leaves a whopping 700 million adult Indians unvaccinated.
Third, the children below 18 hours, who number almost 400 million, are completely unvaccinated to date, and that has created a situation of education emergency in the country with no physical classes running in the entire country except some pockets as on October 20, 2021. Worse still, there is no declared strategy or policy for children’s vaccination on a war footing.
Fourth, the media celebration of 1 billion doses calling it as the fastest and among top two nations to have achieved the feat is ill-placed. There are only two nations above 1 billion population, and China had already achieved 1 billion doses and now racing close to 2 billion doses, which they will achieve before December at the current rate.
Fifth, very importantly, we would have crossed this milestone much earlier if the process was started by the government in time in 2020 (and not in January 2021), if initially large chunks of vaccines were not exported to create global image and vaccine diplomacy and the focus was on the safety of our country-men first, if Covishield and Covaxin were given financial support or advance bulk orders as done in other vaccine producing nations, and if WHO approved foreign vaccines wanting to come to India in 2020 were allowed to import and sell. Even the rules and responsibilities of vaccination were not clear and changed several times though under the Disaster Management Act, the Centre assumes full responsibilities during such crises.
Sixth, a large number of Indians, specially of urban areas, had to buy their vaccine doses, from as low as Rs.300 to as high as Rs.4000 per dose in private hospitals. The polio vaccines were delivered free to the entire population decades back. India as a nation was much poorer then. But people spent for their jabs, and that crosses 20% of the adult population.
Seventh, the vaccination process started with two doses given with a gap of 28 days, which increased to 42 and now 84 days, and with scientific basis, glaringly exposing the ill-preparedness even till May 2021. The second wave killed officially less than 100,000, but several estimates by the scientific community world-over show it to be more than a million. Now that the production has been ramped up, why cannot we get back to 28 to 35 days gap between jabs, so that more can be vaccinated and faster? The frontline workers with 28 days gap vaccination have not reported to have developed any widespread reaction.
Eighth, September 22 reports in NDTV.com and a few other media outlets have reported and shown images of several vaccination certificates of people who actually did not receive the jab, as they were given on September 17, PM’s birthday to set a record of 2.5 crore vaccines that day, while the daily average till then was around 70 lacs of jabs. Observers have raised questions as to how an infrastructure clocking 70 lacs doses a day could deliver 2.5 crores on a specific day. In at least one case, of Vidya Sharma in MP (Aagar-Malwa district), the lady dead four months earlier got her vaccination certificate on September 17! In June, several reports were there of 13-14 years old children receiving certificates too without any jab being delivered!
Ninth, the government of India has opened up vaccine exports recently once again, in October 2021, while still 70% of adults and 100% of children are yet to be fully vaccinated. There is no way that production can be ramped up to cover the entire population and ensure exports at the same time, as of now. This may be another challenge brewing ahead.
Tenth and finally, though the new cases are much lesser now, the current ongoing festival season with huge gatherings will need to be prevented and the consequences observed till mid-November after Diwali is celebrated in the first week of November. We need to learn our lessons from the second surge of April-May, 2021, following Kumbh Mela and elections in five states.
Every pro-people success is important and needs to rejoice, but not at the cost of bitter facts alongside and the much-needed caution not to plunge into another major crisis.
The author is Secretary, Global Media Education Council, and former Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University.