Edit & Opinion

Politics on vaccine: Playing party popper as usual

Covid-19 announced itself to the world as 2020 dawned blitzing globally unnerving health systems, nose diving economies and the beginning of a new normal. Until mankind awakened to another dawn a year later, of scientists and doctors emerging as defenders against the pandemic. They worked day and night to prepare four vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, in US, Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield in UK and apni desi Covishield and Covaxin for which the whole country and the world was waiting.

Love him, hate him, agree or disagree but kudos to Prime Minister Modi who led from the front to applaud and show his appreciation for the results. “Congratulations India! Both Covaxin and Covishield fulfil the dreams of an Atmanirbhar Bharat”, he added. The decision comes at a time of growing urgency as a mutant new strain threatens to make the pandemic harder to control.

While Covishield developed by Oxford, manufactured and distributed by Serum Institute of India has been approved Covaxin, jointly developed by Indian Council of Medical Research and Bharat Biotech, Phase 3 trials are ongoing is recommended only in ‘clinical trial mode’ and for emergency use.

Trust our netas to play politics on the vaccines. The Congress typically whined, “The Government must give reasons for dispensing with mandatory protocols to authorize Covaxin as it involves health and safety of frontline workers who will be vaccinated first.” Chorused another, the Government must reveal final data on safety and efficacy during trials.

Added Samajwadi’s Akhilesh Yadav that he would not take the “BJP’s vaccine”. Unka bharosa karunga main? Sic. “The Government should provide free vaccination for every citizen”, suggested some. Premature approval of Covaxin is dangerous…..Why has the Government ignored international accepted protocols for it,” voiced a few. Amidst this what was left unsaid was more important: Our leaders want to jump the queue and be amongst the first to be inoculated.

But, the nation ignored them and rose in unison as the Government had put human beings at the centre of its endeavour to tackle the pandemic. In the first phase three crores healthcare and frontline workers, next those with co-morbidities and above the age of 50, followed by defence and sanitary personnel.

Moreover, even as they try to discredit Modi, Parties and politicians will use the vaccine to garner political dividends. Primarily as public health is a political issue which comes to the fore during polls as medical freebies are doled out. Lost in the electioneering din are the economic costs. 

Arguably, it’s not the tu-tu-mein-mein which worries me, an issue which will die its natural death within days. However, this time round what greatly troubles one is that these ‘small minds’ have willy nilly made a gulli-danda of health. What one is concerned about is that our leaders only want to score brownie points. It is nobody’s contention that uncomfortable questions regarding the vaccine should not be raised. But that is a topic for another day and another time when the immediate threat has faded.

What the Opposition should do is to hem in the Government on how much will the national vaccination programme be implemented? Will the entire bill be footed by PM Care? How will its implementation be done in our federal setup where there is a great variation in a State’s capacity as health is a State subject? When will the Centre start engaging States to chalk out the rollout strategy? How will States prioritised recipients?

Who comprise private citizens? Would it be on the basis of salary, income tax? What form will private hospitals and clinics be permitted to vaccinate people who are willing to pay for it thereby reducing the burden on the Government? Why has Covaxin been allowed when candidates have not yet demonstrated how effective it is in preventing disease and its safety performance having being judged in limited numbers for a short duration?

It is also debating whether the entire population should be vaccinated free of cost as part of a nationwide vaccination campaign. Union Health Minister Harshvardhan has suggested it should not be free for all. It should be for all those willing to take it at Government facilities with the cost shared by the Centre and States.

This is pragmatic and is based on sound economic reasons. But as reactions of Tamil Nadu which goes to polls next year and Madhya Pradesh show, political incentives will cause all State Governments — whether in power or facing elections —- to announce free vaccines for people. Obviously, Central and State Governments will have to work out the cost-sharing arrangements which would be challenging given the tight fiscal circumstance they face.

True, it’s not only India. Worldwide leaders have politicized the pandemic. Recall how China stifled reports of the outbreak and in US the precaution of wearing a mask is about taking sides, Democrats vs Republicans. While Putin’s Russia was the first to announce the Sputnik vaccine, Beijing promised to share its version with the world and outgoing President Trump made sure Pfizer and Moderna delivered during his tenure.

As it stands the pandemic exposed the weakness of our health system which could not generate a swift and strong surge response. Even as our low-resourced public health and hospital systems gallantly struggled to cope with the challenge of testing, tracing and treating,.  

Clearly, we need to invest more in health. The vaccines success depends on three things: One, a robust primary health system, focus on augmenting the scale and skills of a multi-layered and multi-skilled health workforce and steady improvement of the health infrastructure to combat future pandemic threats. We must keep up public health in Central and State health services through creation of public health cadres along-with vigilance against viral transmission, while using the vaccines to protect the vulnerable and prevent interruption of essential services.

Even as economics should dictate, in the coming months it is politics that will decide. Either which way the vaccine roll-out demands responsibility and restraint from our netagan and should be managed with sagacity and not trump science. At the end of the day, our leaders who reduce the level of discourse to low depths only do so at the cost of exposing their lack of civility to the nation at large. Leaving India dangerously divided as the hectoring will only serve to weaken the national resolve.

Certainly, the post-epidemic stage will see the emergence of a new human being, whose daily behavior habits, thinking and sentiments will differ from what it was before the Covid outbreak Time to get back to basics and reignite the magic of simplicity and minimalism, become more humane and see the world through new lens.

Besides, the vaccines do not signal a return to the normalcy of our pre-Covid-19 lives. Of course, our lives will never be the same again but we need to focus on what we are going to do to make the new normal a good one. A way of being that minimises the risks of the virus but allows us to live and earn our living, A ‘normal’ which cycles between relaxations along with aggressive public health measures when the disease wanes. Crisis time calls for togetherness as we head into a cautious, into a brave, new world — with Orwellian overtones. We must have courage and take a rational view at known facts and act accordingly. Though Covid-19 is a surly visitor, it has delivered a message that we must heed: Jaan hai to jahan hai. This must be our resolve in 2021.

 

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About the author

Poonam I Kaushish | INFA

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