Modi Backtracks on India Vaccine Drive After Intense Criticism

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Source: PIB)

Modi Backtracks on India Vaccine Drive After Intense Criticism

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced free vaccinations for all adults in a move prompted by criticism of his administration’s handling of India’s deadly second virus wave and a botched immunization roll out.

In a half hour-long address on national television on Monday, Modi said all Indians above the age 18 will be vaccinated for free starting June 21, vowing to speed the inoculation drive. His administration will also procure the shots for the states, reversing an earlier policy of asking the provinces to compete for supplies for certain age categories.

Modi’s speech came against the backdrop of a near breakdown in health infrastructure over the last two months, with major Indian cities running out of oxygen and hospitals flooded with patients as crematoriums struggled to keep pace with the number of those who died from Covid-19. His government’s ratings have fallen from 75% in 2019 to 51% this year, according the LocalCircles polling company survey released May 29, in one of the first indications that Modi’s enduring popularity with voters may be fading.

The South Asian nation faces the challenge of vaccinating its large adult population as it emerges from a devastating second virus wave, with a critical shortage of inoculations leading some centers to close down as the country struggled to ramp up domestic production and procure doses internationally. The country’s top court criticized the government’s vaccine policy as “arbitrary and irrational.”

Modi Backtracks on India Vaccine Drive After Intense Criticism

The move to centralize vaccine procurement will come as a relief to Indian states that are strapped for funds. In April, the federal government suddenly made provinces responsible for inoculating adults and since they hadn’t budgeted for the shots, they were staring at a a huge additional expense, estimated at between $5 billion to $7 billion. Modi also announced extension of a free food grain program for about 800 million poor until November.

It’s a good step, however continuing with a 25% quota for paid vaccines through private hospitals remains inequitable, said Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “What worries me about this is the underlying philosophy of the government, which seems to treat vaccines as private commodity, which no other country in the world is doing.”

Vaccine Shortfall

The South Asian nation has administrated 232 million doses since the start of the world’s biggest vaccination drive that began on Jan. 16, with 3.4% now fully immunized. At this pace, it will take another 22 months to cover 75% of the population, according to Bloomberg Vaccination Tracker.

Modi Backtracks on India Vaccine Drive After Intense Criticism

While the federal government gives free vaccines to those over 45 and frontline workers, state governments and private hospitals have until now been left to inoculate people from 18 to 45 years for a fee.

Modi’s administration has ordered 250 million doses from the Serum Institute of India Ltd. and 190 million jabs from Bharat Biotech International Ltd. to be used from August onward, V.K. Paul, member of planning body Niti Aayog, said on Tuesday. This is in addition to the 300 million doses already ordered from Hyderabad-based Biological-E Ltd., which is currently conducting phase 3 trials of its vaccine. The country has already secured 536 million doses for use till July, he said.

The government has said over 2 billion doses will be available by December -- enough to vaccinate the adult population -- but there is no indication the main vaccine manufacturers in India will be able to ramp up production to meet that goal, nor whether India will be able to purchase doses from overseas to make up the shortfall.

This move shows it is taking steps to correct its immunization policy, said Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi-based epidemiologist and expert on public policy and health systems. “However it doesn’t address the issue of supply -- the other part of the vaccination drive.”

Modi last addressed the nation on April 20, when he urged states to avoid lockdowns even as the country was heading toward record daily infections of more than 414,000. Soaring new cases and a spike in daily deaths forced both India’s financial and political capitals to impose restrictions on movement, as citizens took to social media in a desperate search for oxygen and life-saving medicines.

The wave has been steadily declining since the peak on May 7, and New Delhi and Mumbai have began to ease their lockdowns as India on Tuesday reported 86,498 new infections and 2,123 deaths.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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