The lethal and ferocious second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc in India. Despite the incessant propaganda by the combined machinery of the government, the ruling BJP and its cohorts, the world is now wide awake to the abject misery that has presently engulfed the common people in the country. Even as the fatalities keep remain high, the process for provision of vaccines — which have been proven to be effective in preventing both deaths and severity of the virus attack — continues to be ambivalent and non-functional, if not antithetical to the need of the country. This is precisely because of the inhumane attitude and naked commercial orientation of the Indian imperialist state and its servitor BJP government in dealing with a health crisis of such a magnitude. Non-availability of medicines, abysmal shortage of oxygen supply, hoarding and black-marketing of essential drugs, scarcity of beds, paucity of doctors and nursing staff, fragile health infrastructure and above all the vaccine imbroglio-all these mark the government’s ‘response’ to the Covid 19 disaster. In this write-up, we shall focus on the vaccine scenario.
Much-trumpetted launch of pan India vaccination drive
It bears recall that on 16 January 2021, BJP Prime Minister (PM) Modi launched the pan India rollout of Covid-19 vaccination drive via video conferencing. It was claimed that this was the world’s largest vaccination programme with a total of 3006 session sites across all states and union territories (UTs). The PM claimed that in the first round itself, 3 crore people, which is more than the population of at least 100 countries of the world, are being vaccinated. He said that 30 crore more people (22%of the population) would be taken up in the second round when elderly and people with serious co-morbidities would be vaccinated. Vaccination would be completed in six months i.e. by July-August 2021. The PM also cautioned the people to be careful about not missing taking two doses which implied that sufficient number of vaccine vials would be available for hassle free administration. Yet, as on date, a mere 3% of the population has been covered! In a country with a huge population like ours, it warrants a properly planned and organised effort with due seriousness to cover the whole population with vaccination at the shortest possible time.
Sense of triumphalism and paeans of praise for PM
But such has not been the case with the BJP-ruled India. It was obvious that a sense of triumphalism had begun to emerge, buttressed by a faith in so called Indian exceptionalism, when the first wave had receded. Leading the pack were the cheerleaders of the PM as the ruling BJP was preparing to launch election campaigns in four states and one UT slated to go to the polls in March-April. Super-spreader religious event like Kumbh Mela was given the go-ahead to give Hindutva drumbeat precedence over people’s health. On 21 February 2021, the senior leaders of the BJP and all the state unit chiefs met to adopt a resolution thanking Modi for his visionary leadership. On 28 February, it was announced that vaccination in government facilities would be free to all “eligible persons” while in private facilities Rs 250 would be charged per dose. Eligibility criterion included first healthcare workers, front-line workers and then those above 60. Later it was expanded to the 45-60 age group. It was asserted optimistically that as vaccine supply would increase, more population groups would be brought into the fold of vaccination. The crux of this policy was that the entire procurement and allocation would be by the central government. So much was the keenness to swirl in self-eulogy, rather than ensuring people’s safety, that on 7 March Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan proudly declared: “India was in the end game of the Covid-19 pandemic.” He went on to detail how India had emerged as “the world’s pharmacy” having supplied 55.1 million doses of the vaccine to 62 countries, in keeping with international obligations as a responsible global citizen. Paeans of praise were showered on PM Modi to impress that he was the Vishwaguru (global master) despite the fact that under his stewardship India has effectively sleepwalked into a disaster of such a scale, the worst India has faced since independence. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, while addressing a virtual press conference, said 1.07 crore vaccine doses sent abroad were India’s aid to different countries. But later, it came to be known that around 84 per cent of the doses sent under ‘Vaccine Maitri’ package was part of commercial and licencing liabilities of the Indian manufacturers, and no dole of magnanimity of the Indian PM. As cases have skyrocketed and vaccine supplies have plummeted, India’s vaccine diplomacy has come under the scanner. Today’s dominant narrative is that by prioritising vaccine exports over domestic inoculation, India has done a wanton disservice to its people.
Deadly second surge made vainglorious assertions short-lived
But both spruced up celebration and vainglorious assertions were short-lived. January itself saw the US undergoing a third wave of the pandemic with an unprecedented 5,00,000 new cases daily and a per day death toll of well over 4,000. UK numbers had exploded with a new variant that was one-and-a-half times more infectious. Other European countries too were in their third lockdown because of the new wave. But, in overzealousness, the BJP government and leaders defied the dire warnings of epidemiologists that a second surge, more severe than the first, was going to start in India. The wilful neglect of necessary preparations to face the approaching disaster was glaring. It was because the overcomplacent BJP leaders, including the PM, were not only caught up with electoral politics of winning assembly elections in the four states and one UT, but themselves party to glaring violation of health protocols in the process. And the outcome has been calamitous. By 4 April 2021, India had exceeded the daily new case load peak of last September. Over one lakh cases with a death toll of 700 per day were being registered. On 15 April, India crossed 2,00,000 new cases daily, doubling to 4,00,000 cases on 30 April. Active cases mounted to 32 lakhs million and daily deaths exceeded 3,500. Yet, inaugurating a number of blood donation camps on 27 April, the Union Health Minister went on parroting that India “is better prepared in 2021 to beat the pandemic compared to 2020.” Such statements fly in the face of the daily reality faced by hundreds of thousands of Indians struggling for even the most basic medical care or even a dignified death.
The vaccine mess
What was needed was that during the 6-7 months’ of breathing time available between dip in the first wave in September 2020 and gush of the second wave in March 2021, healthcare facilities (hospitals, beds, doctors, nurses, medicines, oxygen and other requirement) were to be ramped up with a god speed. Simultaneously, every attempt was needed to be made for producing as well as procuring from all available sources maximum number of vaccines so as to provide considerable protective shield to the countrymen. But the government’s vaccine policy was being revised every now and then which ultimately made a mess of the whole thing. No meeting of the National Executive Council, the apex decision making body under the National Disaster Management Act that had been invoked in 2020, was convened between November and March, either to track the behaviour of the virus or to follow-up on implementation of decisions taken in 2020 to augment health infrastructure and vaccine supply. Other than banning exports of vaccines in end-March, no attempt was made to have a re-look at either augmenting vaccine production or accelerating the pace of vaccination. The PM even reprimanded the states on 8 April that they were running after vaccine forgetting the necessity to increase the number of corona tests. Upto 18 April, no state was allowed to procure vaccines directly from any manufacturer. Central government was supposed to buy and distribute vaccines to the states. At that time, the government, who had way back in October 2020 been pleading in the WTO for abolishing TRIPS provisions (patent right) in respect of corona vaccines, could make formal arrangement of boosting domestic production by waiving patent protocols and give license of Covishield and Covaxin production to other competent producers in the country (including two government companies). Foreign vaccine developers that applied for authorisation were told to carry out bridging trials that would take a few months before emergency use authorisation could be given. Then, by a reversal of policy, the central government on 19 April asked the states to buy vaccines directly from open market even by floating global tenders while it is a known fact that many state governments do not have necessary funds to procure the vaccines. Moreover, the central government retained the right to fix the quota of procurement by each state. Why could not the Centre go for inviting global tender when, as is known to all, giant manufacturers would naturally be interested to sell bulk volume to a union government rather than responding to smaller indents by the provinces of a federal state? Also, the India government like other powerful imperialist-capitalist countries took no initiative in pooling all the available resources with them to provide momentum to vaccine discovery and proper distribution. Such pooling of global resources together could also help improving health infrastructure and other medical requirements worldwide to fight and thwart the pandemic invasion.
Fuss of ‘Tika Utsav’
Surprisingly, when vaccine availability was far from requirement, PM Modi had announced a ‘Tika Utsav’, or a vaccine festival, between 11 April and 14 April, with a declaration that maximum number of eligible people would be inoculated in the shortest time. In a virtual meeting with all chief ministers, PM said he believed the ‘Tika Utsav’ would help in “creating a sense of achievement” for people after getting vaccinated. However, the number of new vaccine doses in those four days of the so-called vaccine festival was found less than other days in April. The number of new vaccine doses administered on 11 April stood at 29,33,418 – much less than the new doses administered on 8 April (41,35,589), 9 April (37,40,898) and 10 April (35,19,987). Obviously, questions were raised over the very purpose of organizing such a super-flop ‘Tika Utsav’ other than befooling the people and the world. Then, as the pandemic was still on the rise, the government in a queer move announced on 21 April a revised policy. In this, 50% of vaccines manufactured for India are to be sold to the central government. The other 50% would be sold in the open market, with state governments and private hospitals competing for it. Again on 1 May, the Centre announced that it would not bear the expenses of vaccinating people of age group 18 to 45, that had by then become eligible for getting vaccination. Immediately, in May, only nine big corporate hospital groups have reportedly cornered 50% of the vaccines to be sold at commercial price for minting profit. This is also putting smaller hospitals in distress as they are denied the idented quotas. Incidentally, vaccination rates had dropped from above 35 lakhs jabs a day to below 25 lakhs in early May reflecting a looming vaccine supply crunch in the near term.
Distressed people are burdened and harassed
In a country where people are already reeling under the economic burden caused by the pandemic, not to mention of the huge job loss, it is anyone’s guess how many can afford to get themselves and their families vaccinated at the stipulated higher rates at private hospitals. There are many state governments which do not have the necessary funds to procure the vaccines. Moreover, after standing in the queues for several hours, people in many hospitals had to return empty-handed as the paltry stock was used up in no time. “No vaccine’ signboards were on display in many hospitals and inoculation centres. Such is the sorry state into which the BJP government has pushed its own people. Incidentally, even known autocratic imperialist-capitalist countries like USA, UK and Brazil who had initially underestimated the impending Covid 19 threat and took preventive steps much later after considerable damage having been done, have also did not hesitate to vaccinate their citizens free of cost. But in India, many people have to shell out money from their pocket to be vaccinated.
Another factor grossly violative of equity is the mandate of online registration of the names of vaccine-seekers on CoWIN portal. But over 75% of Indians live in rural areas and that too in abject poverty. How can they be expected to register their names on CoWIN portal? How far is it justified to expect that an illiterate villager from rural India would cross the “digital divide” to register for Covid-19 vaccination on the CoWIN portal where slots disappear in the blink of an eye? On that count, vaccination policy today is entirely exclusionary of the rural areas.It is noteworthy that over 50% deaths during the second wave are from rural India. Naturally, discontent is brewing up among one to all.
Roaring trade of vaccines by the corporate manufacturers
Next is the aberrant roaring trade of life-saving vaccines by profit-greedy corporates with the government in tow. There are no vaccine manufacturers in the public sector today. This was indeed not the case not so long ago. Before the policies of globalization -liberalization, much of the vaccine needs in the country were met by public- sector manufacturers. It is because of the privatization policy of the governments which have resulted in the demise of such institutions. The governments had shut down these institutions citing them as being sub – standard instead of reinvesting in them or bringing them up to modern standards. The absence of public manufacturers has meant that the private sector companies are free to decide on the price of vaccines.
In India, only two domestically manufactured vaccines are currently being used in the vaccination programme: Covishield by the Serum Institute of India Pvt Ltd (SII), and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech International Ltd. Needless to say, both of these are private companies. Initially, the central government had procured the vaccines from these companies and declared administration of those doses free of cost to those aged above 60, and to other priority groups like front-line health- and other workers who only comprise a fraction of the population. Even then, with parallel availability of vaccines in private hospitals at a price, many had taken the jabs there as well. Subsequently, in a move that was a deadly blow for a significant population, the BJP – led government had negotiated a deal with the companies that they would be allowed to sell 50% of the manufactured doses to state governments and private sectors at prices determined by them. As a result, SII priced its Covishield vaccine at Rs.600 a dose for private providers and Rs 400 for states, later scaled down to Rs.300, while Bharat Biotech had initially priced a single dose of its Covaxin for states at Rs 600 and for private sector at Rs 1200 . This price differential is clearly based on profit maximization at a time the humanity is in an unprecedented health crisis and facing life threat. Both, Covishield and Covaxin have been developed with the help of considerable public money. While Covishield was developed by Oxford almost entirely with public money, Covaxin was a product of a Public-Private partnership (PPP) venture which has considerable public input. The duplicity of such companies became apparent when Bharat Biotech tried to present Covaxin as wholly their own work. In the true spirit of how Intellectual Property Rights is conceived in the capitalist system, these companies are making huge profits out of research and products that are wholly or partially paid for by public funds. Now, Sputnik V, a third vaccine from Russia, has been approved. But the vaccine on being imported would be priced Rs 995. Every recipient need to take two doses of either vaccine so the cost would be double. Gone are the days of Madam Curie who refused to patent Radium because she believed that every research was a product of the combined knowledge of the society. In the text books of bourgeois economics, there is a concept of ‘positive externality’. If any product comes under that category, its price cannot be determined by market. The state ought to take responsibility of distributing that product. But in India, price of even a pandemic vaccine is being left to market.
Argument of shortage of fund is spurious
Another argument, harping which the government has washed its hands off from the financial responsibility is that it does not have sufficient funds. What is disquieting is the fact that in the last budget with the effects of the first pandemic in full view, the Union BJP Finance Minister provided Rs 35,000 crores for Covid-19 vaccine in Budget Estimate 2021-22 and committed to provide further funds if required. A back of the envelope calculation would indicate that if India were to vaccinate 75 percent of its 900 million strong population that is above 18 years, the total number of vaccine doses needed is 1.35 billion. If the government were to procure at Rs 200 a dose, it works out to Rs 27,000 crores, much lower than the budget allocation. Experts have estimated that it would cost the government Rs 50,000 croresto carry out the entire process of vaccination in the country. Does not the government spend more than this amount on other projects? Anyone going through the recent Union budget will see that projects under the National Highway Authority of India have been allocated more than Rs.50,000 crores. Even the construction of the Central Vista, which has not been stopped in this gravest of situation will cost Rs.20,000 crores of public money. Need there be greater proof that the government’s priority is not the lives of the citizens of the country but beautification of the residence of the PM, Vice-President, Parliament house and the adjoining sites to showcase “India’s progress and prosperity”? Further, despite repeated requests from many quarters including the citizens, the government has not withdrawn GST on vaccines, medicines and other medical equipment like oxygen cylinders etc. on the false pretext that it would make the manufacturers ineligible to claim the input tax credit on the raw materials or services used in the supply of vaccines. And hence the end-price would shoot up. If that be true, how is that at present, items attracting GST are becoming costlier with every passing day? For information of all, a 5% GST is levied on domestic supplies and commercial imports of vaccines, while Covid drugs and oxygen concentrators attract 12%. Do any of these fiscal policies have a semblance of concern for the pandemic-affected wretched people?
Apple-cart has been upset
The BJP PM, it may be recalled, had put pressure on Indian manufacturers to declare discovery of vaccine even before August 2020 so that he could announce this during Independence Day speech on 15 August. But that scheme failed as minimum scientific tests and trials about the efficacy of a vaccine required much more time. So that attempt to arrogate to himself the glory of being the pioneer of corona vaccine fell through. Then the PM, who had hitherto been taking pride in making ‘Atmanirvar Bharat’, intended to receive the title of ‘Vishwaguru’ through fictitious claim about India’s progress in vaccine production. But that too proved abortive as crunch of vaccine shortage assumed such a proportion that he had to look outside for procuring vaccine. The Foreign Minister was made to rush to USA with a begging bowl for vaccine and raw material. The Pharma giants like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson are demanding indemnity as a pre-condition to enter into supply contracts with India, and local manufacturer Serum Institute of India (SII) is also seeking the same. The indemnity will protect manufacturers from any potential civil-legal liability or provide immunity from being sued by people for any unforeseen complications arising from their Covid-19 vaccines. It is learnt that the BJP government has been considering the requests. This is how India and its BJP PM went from being a ‘Vishwaguru’ and the world’s pharmacy to this role of a beggar when 60 days earlier, the ministers, ruling party leaders and the sycophants were caught up in a self-congratulatory frenzy of having defeated the pandemic. ‘Atmanirbhar’ is now succumbing to reliance on others.
Centre faces ire of Supreme Court
A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court held the vaccine policy as “arbitrary and irrational”. The Court also asked the government to “please wake up and smell the coffee”. “What is the rationale for this dual pricing policy? Why is the Centre procuring at a lower price and the Centre fixed its vaccine purchase at 50% and left the States to their own devices?… Article 1 of the Constitution says Bharat is a Union of States. When the Constitution says that, we will follow the federal rule. Then the Government of India has to wholly procure the vaccines and distribute them. Here, individual States are left in the lurch…”, the Court asked. The Supreme Court has sought a response from the central government asking it to clarify how Rs 35,000 crore earmarked for Covid-19 vaccine procurement in the Union Budget was being spent. The Court asked why the same could not be utilised for vaccinating persons in 18-44 age group. The Court also directed the Centre to place within two weeks the purchase history of all Covid-19 vaccines, entire data on record, all relevant documents and noting on the files reflecting its thinking culminating in the Covid-19 vaccination policy.
In reply, the government, besides shamelessly claiming its vaccine policy to be “just, equitable, non-discriminatory”, said that as vaccination of the entire country is not possible in one stretch due to the very suddenness of the pandemic, limited availability of vaccine doses and the vulnerability are the prime considerations. It further submitted in the affidavit that the differential pricing of the vaccines is aimed at incentivising private manufacturers and increasing availability of vaccines in the country. Vaccination through private sector of 25% quantity would facilitate better access and will reduce the operational stress on the government vaccination facilities as those who can afford to pay and prefer to go to a private hospital, would not come to government vaccination facilities reducing the crowd which can continue to serve the rest, the affidavit mentioned. Obviously, this argument is a vain attempt to justify patronization of private manufacturers who are stated to have been reaping profits in thousands of crores by selling vaccines.
Once again policy reshuffled under pressure
The valid questions raised by the Supreme Court, mounting discontent among people for not being able to get vaccine, pointed finger at the Centre for utter failure in preventing second corona wave, pressure from the state governments and above all, fast erosion of the manufactured image of the PM forced the BJP government to again reverse the vaccine policy on 7 June. According to the revised policy, “the Centre will take over the 25 per cent vaccination procurement handed over to states earlier.” This means that the Centre will procure 75 per cent of all vaccines produced in India and supply them to adults free of cost. Private hospitals, however, will still be able to buy 25 per cent of all vaccines produced in India directly from the manufacturers and, apart from the cost of the vaccine, will not be allowed to charge more than Rs 150 per dose. Pause! This Rs 150 is only the service charge. The actual billing to the vaccine-taker would be Rs 780 for Covishield, Rs 1,410 for Covaxin and Rs 1,145 for Sputnik V including purchase cost and GST. State governments have been made responsible for monitoring the new vaccine plan. However, it has not been clarified if the expenditure already incurred by the states for buying vaccines directly would be reimbursed by the central government. The PM also informed that vaccine supply in India is set to increase as seven companies are producing different vaccines and another three vaccines are in the advanced stage of clinical trials. Procurement of vaccines from other countries has also picked up pace, he informed. One wonders how far his talks would materialize given the backdrop of hitherto given plethora of gimmicks, hoaxes and false promises. Already, it has been reported that 25 crores of Covishield and 19 crore Covaxin would be received between August and December. New vaccine from Biological E, now under trial, would supply 30 crore doses in September. If India needs to meet the target of fully vaccinating its adult population by year end, it would need to step up the average daily vaccination levels close to five times from what has been achieved from 16 January 2021 to 7 June. How would then the new vaccine policy announced with so much fanfare be operational as per stated target?
Why this inhumanness, cruelty and unfounded optimism?
Obvious question is why is the BJP government playing such way cruel game with people’s health and life in a country which is deemed to be a civilized one? What prompts frequent changes in vaccine policy? Why is the government not providing authentic data on production and stock as well as concrete schedule of inoculation including numbers, targeted groups and centres? Why so much vagueness and mismatch between claim and reality?
Notwithstanding the fact that the present BJP government as well as the BJP leaders are more inclined towards creating a ‘larger than life’ image of PM Modi and shield behind that all their anti-people policies, failures, suppressions, acts of persecution, brazen violation of rudimentary democratic norms, values and practices, ultimately the answer is to be sought in the system the BJP serves and protects. Capitalism, as we know, is now irretrievably caught in its phase of decadence. It is sunk in putridness–economically, politically, culturally, ethically and morally. Anyone in servitude of capitalism for pelf and power is bound to spread the festering sores of this rottenness. That is vividly manifest during this pandemic when the cruel and inhuman attitude as well as rottenness of dying capitalism are laid bare in the policies and practices, fraudulent approach and acts of the BJP government.
But what has been seen in India is indeed beyond compare. As we have stated above, most of the imperialist-capitalist countries of the West have been providing vaccine free of cost. At least they have that little bite of conscience and could not fully overrule whatever little vestige of democracy as well as concept of a welfare state is still in existence. However, that too is also not in existence in India. To the BJP leaders and government who have established a fascist autocratic rule with wholehearted backing of the top monopoly houses –now on a spree to multiply their wealth riding on the misery of the countrymen – the people’s life, woes, further pauperization and utter destitution are all subordinate to their personal ambitions, power-greed, and above all, their desperate efforts to wiping off the piled up dirt on the artificially built superman image of the PM intact by resorting to all kinds of trickeries, treacheries, falsehood and deceitful propaganda. When examples from across the world have clearly shown that such pandemics can only be dealt by a robust public health system that is standardised to meet all challenges, it is a disgrace that the BJP government of India has chosen to slavishly serve the interests of the corporate behemoths, many of whom have commercial interest and stake in pharma industry, vaccine production, hospitals, manufacturing of medical appliances and so forth. It is reported in the media that going by the prices offered by the vaccine makers, the Serum Institute, owned by Cyrus Poonawalla, the seventh richest person of India and Bharat Biotech, an Indian MNC, would make Rs 35,350 crore and Rs 75,750 crore of profits, respectively. At the forefront of such a blatant anti-people pro-capitalist vaccination policy, common Indians are facing risks that give no second chances. Time has come to rise up against such a disastrous vaccine policy and compel the BJP government to take appropriate measures to provide necessary vaccines free of cost, and set up proper healthcare under its aegis so that predicted third wave of the pandemic can be effectively prevented. This is absolutely necessary because of the fact that experts have already cautioned of a third wave of pandemic coming down in near future.
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