Edit & Opinion

Vaccine Politics: Shortage, Ineptitude Effect

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, it is reported, has written to Prime Minister Modi alleging “vaccine starvation” in the nation and demanding immediate ban on export of vaccines.  To this, the Union Law Minister Ravishankar Prasad hit back claiming that shortage was not of vaccines, but of commitment to healthcare in Congress-governed States.

Vaccination programme is the latest addition to the list of Union-State conflict spots and inter-party political warfare on matters that should be beyond party politics. It may be termed “vaccine politics” or “Politicisation of COVID-19 Vaccine”.

“Was the export of vaccines also an oversight, like many other decisions of this government, or an effort to garner publicity at the cost of our own citizens?” asked Rahul in clear political manner giving a piece of “advice” that our vaccination programme should move towards guaranteeing maximum vaccination.  He  said the Centre had sidelined the States in planning and procurement  process and urged Modi to give  them greater say in the programme.  He asked for increased allocation of resources to vaccine manufacture and to speed up approval of more vaccines. Ravishankar Prasad received the comments as part of lobbying for some pharmaceutical companies. The exchange is but a display of lack of trust and cooperation between political parties even on a most serious matter like fighting a deadly pandemic.

Complaints of vaccine shortage due to short supply from the Union government are made by mainly non-BJP ruled States – Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. Maharashtra is practically shouting that it has hardly three days requirement thus pushing a panic button.

Maharashtra, till  9th of April had received  1.6 crore doses of vaccine;  92 to 95 lakh doses have been administered. The State has now got little stock and some vaccine centres have to be closed. Union government says that 17.43 lakh doses will be sent to Maharashtra after 15th April. While insufficient supply will hinder vaccination drive in the State under current schedule, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray wants to cover all below 25 years. Whether it is for covering up one’s inability and lack of efforts by the Government of Maharashtra, or genuine shortage of vaccine to meet the requirement of all States according to a distribution policy, the reality is the   emergence of vaccine politics in India in various forms.

The Union Government has informed the country that 43 million vaccine doses are in stock when shortage alarm is raised. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan accused Maharashtra Government of diverting people’s attention from its dismal management of the pandemic.   Vaccine supplies are being monitored on a real-time basis and State governments are being apprised regularly about it and allegations are utterly baseless, as per his communication to Maharashtra Government.States falling behind in comparison with other States have various reasons for their slow action. But, politics intervenes to find an easy way of putting the blame on short supply from the Centre. Need, demand, supply, utilisation, and results are being monitored and particular States should not normally have reason to nurse any grievance provided they follow a sound plan of vaccine administration.

Chhattisgarh was pointed out for “petty politicking” whereas the State relied on rapid antigen tests and initial refusal to use Covaxin thus earning the “dubious distinction of being the only government in the world to incite vaccine hesitancy”. At that time, Maharashtra had hardly vaccinated 25% of senior citizens, Delhi 30% and Punjab only 13% — clearly showing the lack of will. Cries of vaccine shortage is accompanied with demand for vaccination of all adults!

By 5 April, India had administered 6,310 doses per one lakh population – relatively lower than comparable economies and the world average was 8,900 doses. Israel, Chile, UK, USA, Brazil, and China have administered above world average doses.

Supply of vaccine from the Centre to a State in India depends on 3-day average utilisation of the vaccine. It means that failure to utilise the supply will lead to reduced supply and better utilisation to improved supply. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh   have better record of vaccination and as a result, higher supply.

Vaccine politics does exist in several nations in different forms. In the US, States were asked to be prepared to immediately vaccinate identified critical populations as soon as vaccines would arrive after approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Guidelines were    furnished to the States by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccine distribution and opening vaccine sites to ensure timely action.

Here the vaccine politics divided the Republicans and Democrats. Present US government confronts vaccine hesitancy sown by previous Republican President Donald Trump which is indeed a big challenge. Vaccine divide goes along the party divide to some extent. Expert opinion is for vaccinating over 80% of the population before next winter so as to halt the return of the virus with renewed vigor. It is hard to achieve without Republican support.

Vaccine politics cannot be understood without reference to Germany, where vaccine skepticism was born and developed. It has persisted from the days of mandatory small-pox inoculation introduced 150 years ago till voluntary Corona jab today. Immunisation concept has always played politics in Germany. Several conspiracy theories circulate to oppose vaccination and people are mobilised against it. Arguments advanced against small-pox vaccination in the 19th century are still repeated. Vaccination became mandatory against small-pox by the Imperial Vaccination Law of 1874.  A movement by name Lebensreform meaning “Lifereform” came up and grew fast to foster natural remedies to strengthen the body by sun shine, special diets, etc.  Vaccine opposition groups were formed in 1870s. Anti-Semetic conspiracy theories played a  role in early anti- vaccine movement. 

The use of AstraZeneca  against COVID-19  in Europe has also faced politics after  complaints of blood clots appearing  in some of those vaccinated. Italy, France, and Spain  joined the group opposing this vaccine. It is suspected by some that politics and not science  may be behind  suspension of  AstraZeneca’s Covid Vaccine. Possible political interference is suspected in the procedure for acceptance of Sputnik V. Pharmaceutical industry is likely to come under extraordinary political and commercial pressures and in the matter of a vaccine for a fast spreading pandemic that is running third wave in some countries has an international dimension also.

Call it Vaccine Diplomacy or Vaccine Maitri – there is a humanitarian angle to  supply of vaccines  within and outside the  countrywhich cannot be totally ignored. Protectionist policy of the US in vaccine export with the strong policy of “America first” is one way of earning popularity within the nation. India’s readiness to help needy nations is another form of Vaccine Politics that has a humanitarian side and cannot be objected to. India is proud to informthe UN that it had supplied more vaccines globally than for vaccinating its  own people. This condition is also resented by some politicians whose contribution to remove vaccine hesitancy and wastage is not much. Vaccination, in essence, is a matter to be handled by medical personnel and health administrators.  Politics has no role.

 

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About the author

Dr S Saraswathi | INFA

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