If Only Our Covid-19 Vaccination Was As Sharp As Our Vitriol
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and former prime minister Manmohan Singh at Parliament House, in New Delhi, on Dec 6, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

If Only Our Covid-19 Vaccination Was As Sharp As Our Vitriol

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I marvel at the clinical efficiency of the lab which creates the ruling party’s spokesmen. The vitriol synthesised there is remarkably consistent. Whatever India may be wrestling with — the tragedy of a killer pandemic or the triumph of a moon landing — the vitriol stays 100% efficacious. How I wish that lab was producing a Covid-19 vaccine instead of poisonous vitriol. Remember, no vaccine has yet to hit 100% efficacy, so this would give the lab something to really crow about.

If Only Our Covid-19 Vaccination Was As Sharp As Our Vitriol

Being Patriotic About The Vaccine Shortage

Just last evening, a pedigreed alumnus of that lab was holding forth on primetime news. His mien was characteristically fierce. Eyes blazing. Nostrils flaring. Anger rising to a shrill pitch in his voice.

Spokesman: “There’s no shortage of vaccines in India. See this tweet (waving his swank iPhone). This hospital is asking for people to come as only half its vaccine capacity is being utilised. There’s no vaccine shortage.”

News Anchor (trying to reason with him): “You should not generalise on an isolated example. The fact is that we are producing 20 lakh vaccines a day but inoculating nearly 30 lakh people. So, there is bound to be a shortage.”

Spokesman: “Thirty lakh people every day! You should be proud of what our government has achieved. It’s the second-highest daily number in the world. In fact, we’re the fastest to hit the 1 crore or 10 million milestone – faster than the mighty Americans, faster than Great Britain, faster than Europe.”

News Anchor: “That, sir, is a misplaced boast. Why, just today, our vaccination rate has fallen by over 50%, from 26 lakh to 12 lakh per day. And in any case, absolute numbers are misleading. Compared to America and Great Britain, we’ve barely vaccinated 10% of our population, while those countries have nearly crossed 50%.…”

Spokesman (cutting him short in trademark style): “Do you know that we have over 1 billion people in this country? Do you know how challenging it is for the government to cover such a large population? You people are just negative about everything. Instead of having pride in your country, you are forever criticising… it’s so unfortunate that even in the middle of such a grave crisis, you refuse to be patriotic.”

Aaah, I said to myself, there we go again. When all arguments are lost, trot out the patriotic card!

“You damn critics, shame on you for belittling India’s achievements”.

I was bracing for the spokesman to commence his assault on Jawaharlal Nehru for the vaccine shortage, but the news anchor had to take a commercial break….

The ‘Good Doctor’ Writes A Missive To Modi

Then the news segued into a letter that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had written to Prime Minister Modi. His missive was characteristically low-key, understated, and written in “the spirit of constructive cooperation”. There were no hyperbole or sideswipes at the government’s vaccination failures. It was a dignified communication from one prime minister to another. It also made sharply sensible recommendations:

  • Publicise the firm orders placed for vaccine doses over the next six months to give complete clarity on the supply line.

  • Lay out a transparent formula on how to distribute 90% of these pipeline vaccines, keeping 10% for discretionary/emergency allotments. This would obviously allow the states to work out a robust distribution plan rather than live from needle to needle.

  • Allow each state to define special categories of people it would like to prioritise. He gave an excellent example about vaccinating teachers under 45 years of age so that schools/colleges could reopen quicker than anticipated. Or prioritise lawyers and taxi/bus drivers.

  • Provide incentives, concessions, and funds to vaccine producers to ramp up capacity in double-quick time. Invoke compulsory licensing, emulating Israel, so that local manufacturers would not be straitjacketed by IPR disputes. He cited the HIV-AIDS precedent.

  • Open a ‘limited-period import’ for vaccines that have cleared regulatory thresholds in advanced economies even if they have yet to be tested on Indian volunteers. Confirmatory trials could be done in parallel.

He ended his letter with the mildest of raps on the government’s knuckles: “We must resist the temptation to look at the absolute numbers being vaccinated, and focus instead on the percentage of the population being vaccinated … I am certain that with the right policy design, we can do much better and very quickly.”

An expansive, broad-minded government—perhaps Vajpayee’s NDA-1—may have invited the good doctor to a cup of tea, and inaugurated a season of political accord, ie “let’s fight this national emergency together”.
Manmohan Singh greets Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on May 22, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)
Manmohan Singh greets Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on May 22, 2004. (Photographer: Amit Bhargava/Bloomberg News)

Alright, okay, so a Utopia is a myth, and there never was going to be any tea party in the current dispensation. Fine. The next best thing to do would have been to pen a graceful, but unyielding, response: “Dear Dr. Singh – thank you for writing. I am pleased to inform you that my government has taken several critical initiatives, including, but much beyond, those that you have highlighted in your kind communication. Nonetheless, I thank you for your time and attention. Yours sincerely.”

But if you did not want to yield even a tiny political inch, you could have just ignored the letter. No acknowledgement. Silence. Finish. Over.

A Minister Responds With Vitriol That’s 100% Efficacious

Now, do you remember what I said right at the beginning? The vitriol is 100% efficacious. Like the vaccine, it gets into your bloodstream and triggers an immune response.

Harsh Vardhan, India's health minister, displays a vial of Covaxin, at 
AIIMS in New Delhi, on Jan. 16, 2021. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
Harsh Vardhan, India's health minister, displays a vial of Covaxin, at AIIMS in New Delhi, on Jan. 16, 2021. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

Within 24 hours came the counter-missive, written in vitriolic ink by the country’s Health Minister:

  • “It is shocking that senior members of the Congress party are yet to utter a single word of gratitude towards our scientific community and vaccine manufacturers … (your) state governments have taken extraordinary measures in spreading falsehoods about the efficacy of these vaccines, thereby fuelling vaccine hesitancy, and playing with the lives of our countrymen.”

  • “However, it does seem that those who drafted your letter (ouch, reaction is mine) or advised you have done a great disservice to your standing by misleading you about material that is already in the public domain” (ouch again, because this implies that the good doctor does not have a mind or judgment of his own!).

Politics, politics everywhere, but not a jab to have!

Raghav Bahl is Co-Founder – The Quint Group including BloombergQuint. He is the author of three books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’, and ‘Super Century: What India Must Do to Rise by 2050’.

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