Unhealthy politics takes toll on common man

The Centre is in the eye of a storm for the mess it has created. Its rejigged vaccination policy raises more questions than it answers. That there is a shortage is a given and the way things appear, there seems no reprieve

Politics seems to have overtaken Health in India: and that too dirty politics. And this time around it is neither about Kumbh Mela nor election rallies: both are long over and, in one sense, done and dusted. Be it the BJP or AAP or any other non-BJP state government, everyone is playing politics.

Take the AAP government led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. It was Kejriwal who had created a ruckus demanding that the Centre should open up and broad-base its vaccination drive. It was in March this year, that Kejriwal asked the Centre to allow all citizens above 18 years of age to get vaccinated. Kejriwal had then claimed that if the Centre gives the requisite permission, his government can vaccinate everyone in three months. He also urged the Centre to allow states to “decentralize” and vaccinate people on a war footing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did just that: gave permission.

Perhaps he did not do it at Kejriwal’s behest or because the Opposition was asking but in less than a month of this hullabaloo, Modi declared that from May 1, everyone above the age of 18 years will be eligible for vaccination. The shortage of vaccines that followed made it abundantly clear that the Centre’s announcement was more of a knee jerk reaction rather than a well thought out strategy; or addressing the crucial question of where the large amounts of vaccine would come from.

The chaos that followed signaled that India has gone one step down the ladder if not more: from being a country that had conducted the initial phases well, from being one to actually export what it touted as surplus stocks to being reduced to one facing shortages and finally non-availability is a dismal situation. In a matter of weeks, the surplus vaccine country was reduced to a no-vaccine country.

There are, of course, painful comparisons. For one, the smooth manner in which the Centre had initiated the vaccination drive: register, walk in and get a jab. No red tape, no hassles and of course no shortages. Doctors are on record to state that if hospitals wanted 400 vials they were offered 1000. This followed it taking the lead in exporting to countries who needed it the most plus rich nations like Canada, UK and UAE among others under its Vaccine Maitri programme.

Consequently, the Modi led government won kudos for both. The common refrain: like India successfully beat the virus, it had come forward with a helping hand to roll out vaccine consignments to the world in need. Back home, there was criticism that India was indulging in vaccine diplomacy at the cost of its own. At that point in time, this criticism seemed completely ill founded and a trifle subjective.

Once the second surge hit, things changed dramatically. Cases spiraled and the Modi led government was at the receiving end for not being vigilant and ignoring warnings about the disaster waiting to happen. Hell broke loose as bodies started piling up by the minute. The foreign media, always the bane for India, had a field day reporting bodies floating in the Ganges and crematoriums reporting a “house full” as it were.

Caught kind of unawares, the Modi government was on the backfoot. Even while the severity of the second wave is a given, the government’s late response to the surge has angered India. This includes BJP supporters who are questioning the Government on squandering the advantages it had accrued last year on two counts: combating the virus and successfully vaccinating hundreds and thousands of people.

This time around India is not only holding back exports but is desperate to get more and more doses of vaccines even while Serum Institute of India’s Adar Poonawalla flew out of India to “stay in the UK for a long time”, alleging threats from Chief Ministers and corporate leaders. Whether it is the threats or his failure to meet the commitments he has made is debatable, but the fact remains that his “fleeing” the country at a crucial juncture has, only, worsened the situation.

As India battled the surge and help poured in from all parts of the world, it was clear that India’s out-reach had paid off: those India had helped and even not helped with vaccines, came to its rescue: UK sent ventilators and oxygen concentrators; France sent oxygen generating plants, liquid oxygen and respiratory materials; Germany helped with ventilators, masks and ventilators; UAE too. Other countries that pitched in were Kuwait, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and Thailand among others. Australia helped by sending goggles, gloves, face shields in addition to ventilators and masks.

In so far as the US is concerned, President Joe Biden made it a point to acknowledge India’s assistance to the US in the early days of the pandemic: “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need”. What is commendable is that help came unasked and unsolicited be it from the US and all others who have pitched in.

Needless to say, that the Modi government’s initial initiative had paid off: something that his critics realized but did not acknowledge: at least publicly.

Even on the vaccination for all drive, the Centre seems to have scored a political point vis a vis the Opposition. Even while it opened up vaccination for the 18 years plus, it left it to the states to procure and administer the vaccine.

This sent the states in a tizzy. They were unable to procure the vaccine, leave alone fulfilling tall claims of “vaccinating the entire population of Delhi in three months”. Remember Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal whose decibel levels increased by the minute while demanding that the “open for all” vaccination policy. Once that happened neither Kejriwal nor Chief Ministers of other states could cope with the increasing demand of people lining up for vaccination: a quantum leap from the hesitancy that India had initially seen. Be it by design or accident, the Centre was able to prove that when the Modi government handled the vaccination drive it was a glitches-free one but once it was left to the states, they simply cannot manage. This is something similar to the national lockdown announced by Prime Minister Modi last year when critics, including Chief Ministers came down heavily on him.

He was slammed for imposing a lockdown on grounds that it was sudden, unplanned and too soon. Some went as far as saying that it was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Congress scion Rahul Gandhi dubbed it as “failed and scary”. But this time around, the same people pushed for a “strict nationwide lockdown” as the second surge literally ravaged India. They saw it as the only option. Ironically, Rahul Gandhi suggested that the Government should moot for lives versus the economic impact of the lockdown given that the human cost of the virus spreading would have tragic consequences. Ironically, Modi’s pitch last year was jaan hai to jahan hai or life being crucial to put it simply.

However, Modi did not play ball. He neither succumbed to pressure from the Opposition nor gave into the demands from Chief Ministers, Kejriwal included, to impose a national lockdown. If anything, he just reversed last year’s policy and said that lockdown should be the last option. And with that, he shifted the onus on the states which had no option but to do what they had criticized Modi for, around the same time last year. Consequently, several Chief Ministers not only imposed a lock down in their respective states but also continued to extend it several times: exactly like Modi had done last year.

Having said that one cannot absolve the Modi government for putting the people in dire straits vis a vis the vaccination drive. The Centre’s rejigged vaccination policy raises more questions than it answers. That there is a shortage is a given and the way things appear as of now, there seems no reprieve. In fact, things seem to be getting from bad to worse with people not being able to register themselves for the jab. the Centre is in the eye of a storm for the mess it has created: whether it has done it to fix states like West Bengal who were demanding freedom in vaccination strategies and purchase of vaccines or because it has no answers on when it would be able to vaccinate the entire population remains debatable.

But one thing is clear: the Centre’s rejig has led to delays and put a question mark on the fate of the vaccination drive. The decision to hand over to the states and giving much more power to the manufacturers has drawn flak. And even while states are crying foul, the Centre seems to be looking the other way. Equally it is true that the Centre played the game well by giving the States what they were asking: open up vaccination for all; decentralize; let states procure their own vaccines; make vaccines available in the open market and so on and so forth. Adept at it, the Modi government may have scored a political goal even while wriggling out of a situation where vaccine shortage is staring it in the face, but it certainly has lost face with the people of India.