Vaccine Populism or Vaccine Policy? Or Is It Just Another Jumla

Shuma Raha
·5-min read

From the death of a Bollywood star to the delivery of a yet-to-exist vaccine for COVID-19, everything seems to be par for course when it comes to cranking up the smoke and mirrors game of the Bihar elections.

While the preposterous drama around the former fizzled out some weeks ago, the BJP is now portraying the latter as a dazzling poll promise: free COVID-19 vaccines for everyone in Bihar.

Last week, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman unveiled the BJP’s election manifesto in Bihar, a state where it has been in alliance with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).

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What stood out amidst the litany of promises that such a document customarily makes, is the declaration that a BJP government would provide the vaccine for COVID-19 free of cost to the people of the state, as soon as it was ready for distribution.

The Opposition howled in protest, claiming that the BJP was trying to politicise the pandemic and derive electoral mileage out of people's fear of the virus.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi put out a snarky tweet, which said that the people of India just had to refer to their state’s election calendar to know when they would be eligible for the vaccine.

And indeed, promising universal free vaccination to one state in particular – merely because it was going to the polls – is shockingly cynical, when the novel coronavirus has been surging through the entire country and has already claimed nearly 1,20,000 lives.

If the BJP’s plan was to score electoral brownie points in Bihar, it was immediately mimicked by several other BJP-ruled state governments. Madhya Pradesh and Assam made the “free vaccine” promise to its people, as did Tamil Nadu, where the party is in alliance with the ruling AIADMK.

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And while Telangana declared that the vaccine would be distributed free of cost to the poor, other Opposition chief ministers, like Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot, have said that the vaccine should be given free to all.

Most state governments, BJP-ruled or not, will likely make similar statements of intent in the days to come. In fact, while addressing a campaign meeting for an Assembly bypoll in Balasore in Odisha, Union minister Pratap Sarangi said that everyone in the country would get the shot for free.

The unborn, and much wished-for COVID-19 vaccine has clearly become the latest and hottest item in the bijli-sadak-pani-jobs-loan waiver bouquet of blandishments that the political establishment routinely dangles before the Indian people.

Now, there is nothing wrong with vaccine populism if it translates into an effective vaccine policy. But one fears that in the enthusiasm to make “free vaccine” an electoral and political gambit, the nuts and bolts of hammering out an effective strategy for distributing will be blithely disregarded.

This is one promise that the BJP cannot confuse with an electoral jumla.

The COVID-19 vaccine, as and when it clears regulatory hurdles and is ready for distribution, will be key to fighting an unprecedented public health emergency. And attempts to turn it into a game of political one-upmanship will not address the mammoth logistical challenge of it reaching the Indian people.

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"The vaccine for COVID-19 should definitely be free. But that is a matter for the Centre to declare unequivocally at the national level – and not be offered as a reward in states where the ruling party is in power or is canvassing for power. "

Adar Poonawala, head of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, has said that India will need to spend about Rs 80,000 crore to buy the vaccine and distribute it to the populace.

And experts have pointed out that it is well within the government’s means to set aside the requisite funds and distribute the vaccine free of cost.

What the Centre needs to do urgently is engage with the states to work out the modalities of procuring and distributing the vaccine, more so because health is a state subject.

The pan-India delivery of a life-saving vaccine is vastly different from showering free pressure cookers, laptops, bicycles and booze at election time.

It will need meticulous planning, a humongous cold chain logistical setup, the procuring millions of pieces of syringes, and a detailed blueprint for vaccine prioritisation, as the entire population cannot be immunised all at once.

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This week, Niti Aayog member (health) Dr VK Paul said that resources will not be a problem and that the national expert committee on vaccine administration for COVID-19 was evolving a prioritisation plan for distributing the vaccine when it becomes available.

However, he failed to provide clarity on whether the vaccine would indeed be offered free to the entire country.

Free vaccines for COVID-19 is a worthy goal, but it cannot be restricted to a handful of states. And buzzwords and glib election lollipops will not replace the planning and hard work needed to roll it out across the country, in predetermined stages.

We blew the chance of containing the coronavirus with a poorly thought-through, hard lockdown. Let us not botch the effective delivery of the vaccine – if and when it comes – because we focus more on spectacle and catchphrases (remember taalis and thalis?) and less on planning and policy.

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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