Vaccinating India– the responsibility shifts to the states
Amir Ullah Khan

The tragedy around COVID continues relentlessly. Daily numbers have crossed 3.5 lakh infections and nearly 3000 people dead. India now has one in 7 active cases worldwide, contributing to nearly 15% of the disease burden. The bad news is that these numbers are on the rise and are estimated to keep going up for at least two weeks, if not longer. Karnataka has announced a lockdown, while most cities are under night curfew in any case. Hospitals are stretched beyond capacity and unable to handle this rush, particularly in Delhi and in UP.

The only silver lining comes from Mumbai, where the daily case load has been declining for a few days now. Orissa, Kashmir, Assam and Himachal are not seeing huge increases. However, in the rest of the country the news is grim. What is scary is the prospect of our rural areas getting infected and that is what seems to be happening across the country now. There are no hospitals, leave alone ICUs and ventilators for rural patients and they are in a precarious situation without access to even testing facilities.

To compound these problems are the stories that are coming of departments and officials deliberately asking diagnostic labs not to give reports that declare patients as positive. Also, of death data being fudged and the mismatch between bodies that being buried and cremated versus the daily death figure being given out by governments. By now, unfortunately our data has lost so much credibility that there are various estimates that are being given out, which suggest that the actual figure of infections and deaths could be more than 3 to 10 times the official figures

The first thing for state governments to do is to realize that data cannot be fudged forever. If death numbers are not given out, people will seethe over crowding in shamshaans and graveyards now know that there is something wrong. This spreads far more anxiety among people than the actual facts. States like Maharashtra and Kerala have adopted the strategy of giving real time data on their portals and that is one reason their numbers are being respected. Also, the true extent of the problem enables both the public and private sector healthcare workers to be prepared for the load that they could get and should be prepared for any emergency.

The second is to ensure that there is more than adequate stock of essentials like Oxygen. It is such a shame that India should now be running out of Oxygen and having patients being cleared out of hospitals as they have no supply. When the infamous incident happened in Gorakhpur in 2017 where young children died because of oxygen supplies running out at a government hospital, the whole world was aghast and we thought this would never happen again. It is now the same scene across the country that we are witnessing while the international community watches in despair at horror stories emerging from Delhi, with its world class infrastructure, struggling to keep its hospitals open.

Thirdly, it is important for all state governments to launch the vaccination drive in a big way. It is again a colossal tragedy that India, that produces nearly fifty percent of the world’s vaccines of all kinds, does not have COVID vaccines in stock. It is also a matter of concern that less than 2 percent of the country has been given the two doses that are required to build immunity. Less than 10 percent have been given just one dose, leaving a large part of our population vulnerable to mortality and morbidity. The state must realise that people will be hesitant and would fear the after effects of taking a vaccine.

That is why it is important to carry out a major campaign and ensure that all respected people, celebrities, leaders and influencers are seen taking the vaccine. Campaigns showing the efficacy of vaccines must be taken up in a big way in all languages. There is enough irrefutable evidence now that those who take have been fully vaccinated, have an absolutely minimal chance of death because of COVID. It is also important to convey that those who are fully vaccinated can still carry the virus that could infect others, and therefore the need for masking and social distancing is even more critical now.

Fourthly, the bizarre decision to continue with public functions, political rallies and inaugurations must be stopped. The Madras High Court has come out with a clear message to the Election Commission going so far as to say the EC officials ought to be tried for murder.

There was really no logic for allowing political parties to gather lakhs of people in crowded rallies. While in a democracy, there is no justification for postponing elections in usual circumstances, there was no logic of holding large physical rallies. With each party now using social media for campaigning the same should be used for canvassing during elections too.

Finally, the big point that emerges is that, as a nation, we were caught napping. Even if there was to be no second wave, we cannot continue to have the broken health systems that we have across the country. Most health centers do not have staff, their pharmacies have no stock of medicine and the supply chain just does not work. We need to step up our spending on healthcare; at the moment we spend less on our health than most poor African countries do. The dream of becoming a great superpower will only come true when we have an excellent education system and a fool proof health system that delivers high quality care to all

Amir Ullah Khan is a researchers at Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP), Hyderabad