Some people believe that when they cannot handle a problem, the best way out is to manufacture a new problem and divert everyone's attention towards it. Is this the approach of some state governments when it comes to handling (or mishandling) the second wave of the pandemic? The slogan of 'vaccines for all' is being heard from some chief ministers and their media ecosystem. A leader in furthering this is the Maharashtra government.
Before the pandemic, Maharashtra's reputation was that of India's financial and economic powerhouse. Now, whenever the state's name is uttered, one wonders which new COVID-19 record the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has created. Maharashtrians have no option but to endure the mismanagement foisted upon them by, arguably, a government they did not even vote for.
Maharashtra is leading almost every list that a state should not. It makes up for 1 out every 3 deaths in the country due to COVID-19. One out of every 2 active cases in the country is reported in this state. Maha Vikas Aghadi government is testing woefully little; test positivity rate of nearly 28 per cent is the highest in the country. Anything above 10 per cent is considered problematic. Even one year after the pandemic struck, people are still scrambling for beds in hospitals in Maharashtra and random lockdowns are still being imposed. There were continuous cries of oxygen shortage and the MVA government tried to blame private doctors for it and restricted usage. The mayor of Pune has already raised an alarm over shortage of ventilators and sought help from other states. No lessons seem to have been learnt over the last one year.
Now, the MVA government is either giving up on controlling the pandemic and betting only on vaccination or trying to shift the goalposts on vaccination as a cover for its visible incompetence. As the Union Health Minister pointed out, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab haven't even vaccinated health workers, frontline workers and the elderly fully, but want vaccines to be opened for all.
An even more curious contradiction is, some of these states are claiming there are no vaccines but are raising the 'vaccines for all' call at the same time. If there are no vaccines available, how will they manage if vaccination is opened for all?
India's vaccination strategy is neither a surprise nor an aberration. The idea of vaccinating health workers on priority, and then the elderly and those with comorbidities, so as to reduce mortality is a practice being followed worldwide. It is also a strategy that has been devised after consultations with states and vaccine manufacturers based on their production capacity constraints. Reduction of mortality in the most vulnerable groups ensures the pressure on healthcare systems relents. If none else, at least a chief minister like Uddhav Thackeray in whose state the healthcare infrastructure is under immense pressure should have been able to realise this.
The Congress government in Chhattisgarh, unable to manage the second wave, has made the demand of opening vaccination for all. Remember, this was one of the governments that had made irresponsible comments about Covaxin. Chief ministers like Arvind Kejriwal who were part of the vaccination strategy meetings earlier are indulging in public grandstanding about opening vaccinations for everyone now. Despite not achieving saturation coverage in the groups for whom vaccination is already approved, one wonders what makes Kejriwal so confident about vaccinating everyone.
Demagoguery, especially on a public health issue like a pandemic that has already frayed people's nerves, is short-sighted and dangerous.
There is a pattern to such behaviour of agreeing with one thing in private and saying something else in public. In 2018, there was an instance of Opposition-ruled states objecting to the GST rate cuts in the GST Council meet but finally agreeing to it after someone from the BJP said that the minutes of the meeting would be released and compared with the speeches these very Opposition party politicians deliver in public about cutting taxes.
The "vaccination for all" call has become a chorus within a certain ecosystem in the media. But this is not a carefully thought-out approach. There is an intricate supply-demand dynamic playing out. Currently, the Serum Institute of India has a production capacity of 60-70 million doses per month and Bharat Biotech can produce about 10 million doses per month. Even if every single one of these doses is administered in India, it means a supply of about 2-3 million doses per day. India is already vaccinating at the pace of about 3-4 million doses per day and notching up single-day vaccination records frequently, which means the supply is just enough for senior citizens and those above 45. Where will those chanting 'vaccines for all' out-of-turn source doses from?
News reports have already exposed the scam of people escaping quarantine by paying money in Mumbai. The MVA government prioritising politicking and rent-seeking even during the pandemic has already cost the state dearly.
The government of Maharashtra has shut down vaccination in many centres, supposedly citing lack of vaccines. However, data indicates that it received over 1 crore doses already, the highest among all states, and still has about 15 lakh doses left. If it has closed vaccination just to prove a political point, then it would have done it inexcusably at the expense of the lives of citizens. That such behaviour has support from certain sections of the media is doubly tragic.
The writer is a public policy professional and research head of a Delhi-based think tank. Views are personal.