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The real culprit in Covid vaccine shortage crisis? Lack of planning

People are constantly calling Lokmat offices seeking help to secure beds, obtain oxygen cylinders or arrange for vaccines and medicines. The situation is horrifying.

The vaccine roll-out had raised hopes. The central government is buying Covishield for Rs 150. What, then, is the reason for capping its price at Rs 300 for states and Rs 600 for private hospitals? The Indian-made Covaxin, which was being distributed free, will now cost Rs 400 to the states and Rs 1,200 to private hospitals. When the private hospitals were converted into vaccination centres, it was announced by the Prime Minister that Rs 250 will be the ceiling — Rs 150 towards cost of the vaccine plus Rs 100 towards the service charge. I have repeatedly maintained that to speed up vaccinations, the government should make the vaccine available in the open market. Others also made similar demands. Ultimately, the government agreed to this but unfortunately rolled back the price cap. The moot question is: How did the government allow companies to set their own prices? When the vaccine price was capped once, why was the policy changed? Exorbitant profiteering at the cost of people’s lives cannot be allowed.

The condition in many states is so miserable that they can hardly buy two doses for every person at the rate of Rs 400 per vaccine. Everyone in this country has the right to a COVID-19 vaccine. It is a different matter if someone has money and goes to the private centre to get a paid vaccine. In all other cases, the Centre should bear the cost of vaccination. One-time taxes can also be levied if funds are required.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about celebrating the vaccine festival, there was an atmosphere of anticipation everywhere. Unfortunately, in many centres, there was no vaccine available. Clearly, the officials did not give correct information to the PM. Officials should have ensured that the vaccine was available across the country because the country believes in what the PM says. There is no question of politics here. People need to know why this festival has failed. Today, state after state is complaining of a lack of doses. The most affected state, Maharashtra, has announced a stop in vaccinations for three days. These are crucial days, wasted in a war where every vaccine administered is a way to stop death. This is a criminal lack of planning.

CNN recently reported a Washington University study that claims that the death toll in India could rise to more than 13,000 a day. Short-sightedness and a lack of timely preparation is a big reason for this situation. Senior officials and experts in the government knew that there is no option other than the vaccine in the fight against COVID, but no steps were taken to increase their availability. The US and EU advanced funding to companies researching the vaccine, while India did nothing. The Serum Institute invested Rs 2,000 crore on its own and received Rs 2,200 crore from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In August 2020, the US invested Rs 44,700 crore in companies developing vaccines. It booked 40 crore doses in August itself. The EU booked 80 crore doses in November 2020 while India placed the first order of vaccine in January 2021 and that too only for 1.60 crore doses — that would cover less than 1 per cent of its population.

Now, the government has jumped into action, but the current production of vaccines in India is not enough to meet our requirement. Foreign companies are fully booked. From where will they provide us with the vaccine? And even if they can, the vaccine will come at a very high cost. Also, each day’s delay in reaching over 60 per cent population coverage could mean that the virus has a chance to mutate and make the current vaccines ineffective.

Anticipating the possibility of the second wave, many countries ensured ample availability of oxygen, but we lagged because of the lack of vision from our authorities. In October 2020, the government placed an order for 162 oxygen production units. Today, only 33 of these units have been installed. People are dying for want of oxygen. There is no shortage of liquid oxygen in the country. There is a shortage of cylinders and containers to transport it. This should have been arranged by the administrators and hospitals.

I believe that a zero-tolerance policy should be adopted on the black marketing of medicine. Misconceptions must be removed. People believe that remdesivir is a suitable treatment for COVID, while the doctors are constantly saying that it is an antiviral drug that must only be used under medical supervision. Today, there are more than 31 lakh active cases in the country. If 10 per cent of them need remdesivir, it means that 19 lakh doses are needed. I believe remdesivir should be procured and disbursed directly based on the assessment of the Disaster Management Group and profiteering by companies and middlemen must be stopped.

There should be micro-planning at the local level and a website for every district to dispense complete information from beds to oxygen, medicines and ventilators at a click.

COVID-19 hospitals are catching fire, charring patients to death. Why has our administration become so inefficient? It is the responsibility of the officials to look after the administration. They should check whether the arrangements are adequate or not. We cannot expect the PM, chief ministers and ministers to stand with a stick everywhere.

The coronavirus has thrown life in our metros out of gear, but the condition of the villages is no less dismal. However, this hardly finds a mention anywhere in the media. Therefore, there is a need to accelerate the vaccination drive in the rural areas as well. Until then, stay at home and wear a mask, please.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 6, 2021 under the title ‘On Covid, no stich in time’. The author is the chairman, editorial board, Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha

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