COVID-19 has changed the way we live, function and govern ourselves. Through the last fifteen months, we have seen the ebbs and flows of this pandemic — learning how to cope, executing the right measures, rectifying our guidelines, correcting steps and building constant awareness.
The Maharashtra government and its administration, like many others across the country, have been tackling this crisis on war-footing, while our real heroes — healthcare workers (HCW) and frontline workers (FLW) — are continuing to lead from the front.
These are grim times for the entire country; daily COVID cases were on the rise until recently, but a flattening of the curve is expected soon. COVID-19, heinously, makes one feel alone — separated from their families and loved ones. In February, I myself tested positive and it was a harrowing experience like no other. I can only imagine the mental state of millions of families who are battling this disease — especially when all the healthcare resources in our country are so strained.
Acute Vaccine Supply Shortage & Impact
In our fight against COVID-19, vaccination is the most important tool. Vaccines significantly decrease the chances of infection. A vaccinated person is less likely to develop serious symptoms if they ever get infected. This difference might turn out to be life-saving. We started with one of the fastest vaccination programmes across the country. However, as we all know, the drive is facing problems due to intermittent supply of vaccines from the Centre.
Multiple vaccination centres are non-operational and the operational ones are not functioning at their full capacity. In fact, the supply has been so woeful, a couple of days back Rajesh Tope, the Health Minister of Maharashtra, announced that vaccines from 18-44 age group would be diverted to complete second dozes of the senior age bracket.
This decision had to be made given the scanty supply of vaccines from the Centre. It is a situation which we, as a state, never imagined would happen when the vaccines first arrived.
We have tried to do the best with the vaccines made available by the Centre. With one of the highest efficiency rates across states, Maharashtra administered close to 2 crore doses — the fastest in the country. We could have vaccinated double or triple of that if vaccines were provided as promised. Maharashtra has the vaccination capacity of 8-9 lakh doses every single day, but we only manage 1.5-4 lakh doses on most days.
Why Did We Have to Fend For Ourselves? Why Weren’t States Involved In Decision-Making?
I feel this could’ve been avoided if states were involved more intrinsically in the decision-making process. With better planning, Maharashtra could have additionally vaccinated crores of younger people, who make up a sizeable chunk of the working population and have been worst hit in the second wave. The Maharashtra government was an ardent advocate of vaccination for the 18-44 age group, and while it was finally allowed by the Centre, today we see there has been no logistical planning for it. There are no vaccines for our national vaccination drive to the point that there is no account of where or when, or even if a person’s second doze would be available in the short term.
On 19 April, the central government directed all states to procure vaccines on their own from vaccine manufacturers. In which country do we see states/provinces competing to get their own vaccines from global companies?
Does Arizona or Colorado in the US have to buy their own vaccines from companies, independent of any support from their federal government? Also, since states were allowed very late to procure their own vaccines, availability has become a concern.
Major vaccine manufacturers already have long-pending orders from different countries. To add to this, only three vaccines have been approved by the central government — Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V. Given that we have a massive population to vaccinate, fast-track approvals must have been accorded for other vaccines too — especially for those already approved by agencies like US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), European Medicines Agency (EMA), etc.
With Over 130 Crore People, Should Indian Govt Not Have Planned Ahead?
Governments are expected to think ahead. While the US had invested close to Rs 44,700 crores across multiple under-development vaccine programmes by August 2020, India had only granted Rs 4,500 crores to two Indian vaccine manufacturers. This grant from the Central Government came in only recently on 19 April 2021, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped the same institute with Rs 2,200 crores way back in September 2020.
As a nation with more than 130 crore people, should we not have planned earlier and invested more in vaccine-development programmes?
On 11 May 2021, WHO classified the Indian variant of the virus (B1.617) as a “variant of concern” — it spreads more easily and the effectiveness of vaccines against it might differ. I hope the Central Government takes this into consideration and commissions suitable research so that India is not caught blindsided again. When all of the world foresees such dangers, the actions of the GOI cannot be reactive; rather it should be preemptive.
How Not Just Procurement But Also Roll-Out of Vaccines Was Bungled
India’s current vaccine manufacturing capacity is not enough to meet even half of the country’s monthly requirements. Did we book enough vaccines from other global manufacturers? The US booked 400 million doses by August 2020; EU (European Union) booked 800 million doses by November 2020; India placed its first order of 16 million does in January 2021. Our population is more than 4 times than that of the US and 3 times than that of the EU (European Union); our approach should have been more structured.
It is not just the mode of procurement but also the way we are rolling out vaccination which is troublesome. A system tied to such a crucial vaccination program needs to be an enabler rather than a limiter.
Many of us have faced issues with the CoWIN portal — technical lags, login issues and OTP delays. Our efforts should make the process simpler and inclusive for everyone. In the same direction, the Maharashtra government has requested to be allowed to create a separate, simpler, more transparent platform for the state — redesigned to accommodate everyone.
Despite outstanding GST payments of close to Rs 30,000 crores pending from the Centre, we are doing our best to manage the financial burden of this pandemic.
Recently, the Maharashtra government announced additional assistance to the weaker sections of society — free food grains, free Shiv bhojan thalis, special grants to construction workers, street-peddlers, indigenous families — amounting to Rs 5,467 crores. For vaccines too, funds have been arranged.
The Maharashtra government is trying to procure vaccines from all possible sources. We are leaving no stone unturned to curb this wave. If required, developmental funds will also be utilised.
Why We Need the Undying Support of the People
I’d also like to reiterate the seriousness of the second wave of this pandemic. It is time that all differences — political and otherwise — be dissolved and we come together to put an end to this humanitarian crisis. Transparency and accountability should be of prime importance but unnecessary politicisation should and must be avoided at this time.
The state government is bringing everything and everyone together to work around hurdles, but this battle also needs the unprecedented support of the people.
There are glitches and delays in the vaccine rollout process, and we are committed to take every step to keep on track and do the best for every citizen. But we can only fight this battle together.
Each person needs to get themselves and their family members vaccinated as soon as possible — while following all the precautionary measures and physical distancing norms.
I urge all to play their part in this battle and educate others about their role. It is my unshaken trust that we will come together to fight, as we always have.
(The author is the Water Resource Minister, Maharashtra, and President, Nationalist Congress Party, Maharashtra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)