The thought that comes to mind when we think about Prime Minister Modi’s BJP is muscular nationalism, Hindutva, and over-the-top-theatrics. Actually, the defining trait of the government is incompetence. Those other things are merely a cover for ineptitude. The record ranges from misreading and mishandling China, demonetisation, the shoddy GST rollout and slowing economy. But what has really revealed its true incapacity is the handling of the Covid vaccination programme.
In extenuation, supporters of the government say this is a ‘once in a century crisis’, forgetting World War II and the Partition. But we’ve begun hearing this phrase only now. Till February, the government was revelling in the masterly way it had dealt with the pandemic. Covid was not even discussed in any detail at the apex meeting of the Niti Aayog on February 20, chaired by the PM and attended by most Chief Ministers.
The PM’s virtual address on January 28 to the WEF in Davos was an essay on hubris. He declared that India’s health infrastructure, trained staff and technology application had contained the Covid challenge. Not only had India vaccinated 2.3 million health workers in 12 days, but also planned to vaccinate 300 million older people in the ‘next few months’, and supply vaccines to other countries as part of India’s humanitarian tradition.
At the onset of the pandemic last year, the union government seized the command and control of the Covid response. Lockdowns were enforced and loosened through the mildly menacing Home Ministry circulars. The pain and suffering that migrant workers faced in their sometimes epic journey to reach home was simply ignored. The government also took charge of the national vaccination campaign, creating a National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration to centralise the vaccination process through the CoWin app and dishing out certificates with the Prime Minister’s picture on it.
But no one had done any calculation about the actual number of doses that would be needed in India. The government, dependent on just the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, waited till January 2021 to place orders for their vaccines. On May 3, the SII head, Adar Poonawalla, said his company had received orders for 260 million doses, of which 150 million had already been supplied and the company had received an advance for another 110 million doses for the May-July period. Even with the 20 million Bharat Biotech Covaxin doses, these numbers would barely scratch the surface of the country’s requirements.
The second wave has consumed the narrative of bravado and bombast. As people scrambled for beds in hospitals and fought for oxygen cylinders and cremated and disposed of the remains of their near and dear haphazardly, they looked for direction and leadership and there was none.
There were no stern Home Ministry directives, no prime ministerial homilies. The decision to lockdown was now left to the states who were suddenly told that the responsibility of coping with the situation was actually theirs. As the vaccination programme began faltering, rules were changed and states were told to buy their own vaccines from wherever they could.
As the second wave intensified, the pace of vaccinations has faltered on account of vaccine shortage arising from poor decisions of the Central government, which now compounded the problem by opening up vaccines for all adults as of May 1. A government advisory group has since revealed that this was a purely political decision. This led to a huge surge of demand which has sent the vaccination programme into a tailspin — the number of shots declined from an average of 3.6 million a day on April 10 to just about 1.4 million on May 20.
Instead of ‘cooperative federalism’ that we desperately need to deal with the situation, what we have been getting are made-for-TV spectacles where the PM interacts with District Magistrates and Chief Ministers in a one-way monologue where no questions are asked nor answered.
Last Sunday in an interview, the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary PK Mishra came up with all the usual platitudes and excuses — India has the fastest rate of vaccination, had vaccinated third highest number globally, the slowdown was not policy failure but a consequence of previously stockpiled vaccines running out and so on.
Mishra repeated the boast that India had vaccinated 19 crore people, the equivalent of half the US population. A look at the figures collated by Our World in Data shows, as of May 21, China has administered 483.34 million (48 crore) doses as against India’s 187.89 million (19 crore), nowhere near the PM’s claim of doing 300 million at the WEF meet.
There is now a publicity overdrive on the enormous vaccine bonanza headed our way in the coming months. As Mishra noted, ‘While kicking in with a time lag of a few months, the supply is slated to increase from 7 crore per month in April to 16 crore in July and 25 crore in October.’
This will be of little comfort to those whose near and dear have been dying at the rate of 4,000 per day since mid-May. Possibly a hundred thousand or more will be dead before ‘things kick in with a time lag.’
And all we have is the promise of vast quantities of vaccines in future. We have no way of knowing whether they will arrive, or whether the government which has singularly bungled the vaccination programme so far, can deliver it to the people. Meanwhile, those who will lose a near and dear one while waiting must take it on the chin, this is part of the resilience and positivity expected from people whose country is destined to be a Great Power.
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