Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya
Hey everybody, Happy New Year!
Gosh, never before in my living memory have we waited so anxiously for one year, the horrible 2020, to end and a brand new one – 2021 – to start.
BUT but but, 2021 can only be happy and healthy if and only if we successfully vaccinate the bulk of our population so that COVID-19 is well and truly vanquished!
Now, in India, we need to consider FIVE critical issues to mount a truly effective vaccination programme.
1. INOCULATE 30 CRORE INDIANS
One: We need to inoculate 30 crore citizens, including –
- frontline health and municipal workers
- soldiers and law enforcers
- everybody above 50 years of age, and
- those under 50 with serious co-morbidities or illnesses
– these total up to about 30 crore citizens. Once we inoculate them, we can declare an effective victory over COVID-19. Given the rate at which we can produce the Oxford and Bharat Biotech vaccines, which are the two most likely and promising candidates, this target can be achieved in six months.
2. LARGEST IMMUNISATION PROGRAMME
Two: India also administers the largest immunisation programme in the world – around 390 million doses – aimed at nearly 56 million children and pregnant mothers every year.
Although we usually miss over 30 percent of this target, it’s still a huge and crucial health programme, so, we simply cannot downgrade it. Now here’s the challenge: How do we scale up against COVID-19 without compromising the health of our children and pregnant mothers?
3. COST INVOVED
Three: The cost of the COVID-19 inoculation could be Rs 60,000 crore, but the Union government’s annual health budget is about Rs 69,000 crore. So, now you get the crisis, right?
4. VACCINE EXPORTS ARE A SIGNIFICANT CHUNK OF OUR DOLLAR EARNINGS
Four: Vaccine exports are a significant chunk of our dollar earnings. By some estimates, that could be over 1 billion doses worth over Rs one lakh crore.
This injects a critical commercial angle in the whole trade-off. So now, how can we create an ethical balance between subsidising our poor and vulnerable, while protecting the decades of hard work done in building a commanding capability in vaccine production and exports?
5. REVIVAL OF ECONOMY
Finally, we need to think of the economy, too, which is likely to contract by nearly 10 percent this year, which means Rs 20 lakh crore of income, or output and jobs, gone. So, the COVID-19 vaccine must also be used to resurrect our economy quickly.
- Imagine the positive impact if hotels, airlines, theatres, bars, malls could get all their staff inoculated – wouldn’t their footfalls go up exponentially?
- If a hotel or airline could also bundle in a 'free inoculation' for their frequent customers, wouldn’t business spike?
- Imagine that large industrial complexes could get all their workers inoculated on priority – wouldn’t their productivity jump exponentially too, as opposed to running half-empty on the shopfloor?
Therefore, should some companies and people be allowed to buy the vaccine ‘out of turn’, at a special price, so that they can jump-start businesses, saving jobs and livelihoods?
ARE THESE IRRECONCILABLE, MUTUALLY CONTRADICTORY, UNACHIEVABLE OBJECTIVES?
Now let me recap: The COVID-19 vaccination programme must inoculate 30 crore Indians on priority, yet ensure:
- that the non-COVID immunisation programme also stays on plan
- our strong vaccine exports are not disrupted
- the economy is revived, and
- we do not spend too much more than the government’s health budget of about Rs 69,000 crore.
Phew! Are these irreconcilable, mutually contradictory, unachievable objectives? At first glance, it would appear so. BUT... but... but, there is one model in which all of these seemingly impossible objectives can be achieved quite easily.
TWO-TRACK DISTRIBUTION PLAN FOR COVID VACCINE
I propose a two-track distribution plan for the COVID-19 vaccine:
- The poor/needy/vulnerable should get it free, absolutely free from the State, while
- A mere 10 percent of the vaccine doses should be reserved for those who are willing to pay an 'exaggerated' price of Rs 10,000 per shot under a Tatkal or 'instant purchase' scheme.
This supertax could give the Indian government Rs 1 lakh crore to fully under-write the free, absolutely free, administration of 90 percent of the vaccine.
WHAT HAPPENS IF WE DON'T ALLOW A TATKAL SCHEME IN COVID VACCINES?
Finally, let me rest my case by asking: Have you considered what would happen if we don’t allow a Premium Tatkal Scheme in COVID-19 vaccines?
- Thousands of Indian families would travel overseas to get vaccinated, thereby draining our resources instead of investing those in the local economy; and
- A flourishing black market would emerge in getting ‘priority medical prescriptions’ or buying stolen vaccines – again, transferring legal cash to the underworld.
TATKAL SCHEME = PRO-POOR SCHEME
Some people object to this two-track distribution plan with an ultimate argument – that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will get brick-batted by critics for running a 'pro-rich scheme'. But that’s completely off the point.
The Tatkal plan would be implemented by private hospitals without any involvement of the government or its machinery. What’s more – the private players would directly import a 'non-government brand', say the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which the Indian government has decided not to purchase, thereby ensuring that not even one vaccine dose is taken away from the government’s free immunisation drive. In fact, these private hospitals/clinics would pay a supertax of Rs 10,000 on each dose administered to willing buyers.
Prime Minister Modi can easily convince the country that this is amongst his most pro-poor schemes!
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