COVID Surge: India’s ‘Policy-Paralysis’ May Become a Textbook Case
Delays in decision-making on all fronts, election rallies, the vaccination mess-up — all point to policy-paralysis.
The previous UPA government was accused of policy paralysis — its inability to take important policy decisions at the right time, which resulted in stagnation, pendency and ultimately impeded economic growth. Since 2020, India has been witnessing a whole new level of policy paralysis, but with a difference — this policy paralysis is not borne out of differing opinions inside a TV set, but from silences around it. Silence can be loud, and it is deafening at this time — as today’s policy paralysis is life-threatening. Let’s see why.
India: From Vaccine Exporter to Vaccine Importer
The watchword for the fight against COVID-19 was “Jab tak dawai nahi, tab tak dhilai nahi” (Keep your guard up until a cure is found). This showed our ultimate faith in the vaccines, but what did we do with this knowledge? The PM, on 19 January 2021, tweeted to express the pride of the country by supplying vaccines to the world.
However, by the time we got to April 2021, India had gone from being a vaccine-exporter to vaccine-importer, and in the process, along with our lives, we put the lives of the people of another 60 poor countries in peril.
Due to domestic obligations, the Serum Institute faltered on its commitments to other countries, and even received legal notices for the same.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
While UK and US were betting on multiple vaccines, we limited ourselves to only two. Further, it is to the credit of the Serum Institute of India (SII) and not the government, that we managed to bring in the AstraZeneca vaccine. And, to worsen the problem, the vaccine manufacturers were given orders very late and that too in insufficient numbers. Our vaccination campaign began on 16 January 2021 but the SII was in the dark even in the first week of January 2021, about the quantity of vaccine doses required by the government.
As a result, the vaccine doses of the SII and Bharat Biotech went up to 6-7 crores and 1.2 crore per month respectively. However, with the growing concern of vaccine shortage, the companies are considering ramping up production, but it will take time to acquire capital and resources.
Vaccine Pricing ‘Goof-Ups’
No one will acknowledge this but what will happen if a vaccine, which its manufacturers have decided to sell at Rs 1000-1500, is sold at Rs 150-200? Even if it is moved by ‘patriotism’, how many doses can a company produce at the cost of its survival? If those at the helm of the country only knew of this basic fact about markets, they would have at least allowed the companies to decide their prices if not assure them of capital.
Had the companies earned profit, the crisis would have been an opportunity for them rather than a cause of concern; the government could have subsidised vaccines that it wished to give the needy at discounted rates or even gratis.
Now, when COVID has exploded and the situation is beyond control, the government, on 19 April 2021, allowed the companies to fix the cost of vaccines. In response to the demand of Odisha, it has permitted state governments to order directly from vaccine manufacturers. Moreover, it has also agreed to the long-pending demand of allowing vaccination for people above the age of 18. It could have been excellent, had it not been marred by terrible delays.
The question remains: how will we get vaccines? Our companies need time to ramp up production and there are umpteen issues involved in importing vaccines. We are racing against time even as we face the horrifying reality of 3 lakh+ cases per day.
How Did We Mess Up the Vaccination Process? What Created Shortfalls & Delays?
The government has now decided to fast-track the approvals for many foreign vaccines, but even that will not get us vaccines immediately. Companies from Pfizer to Moderna have already committed to orders from other countries and will prioritise them first.
There is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Despite fast-tracking, there are formalities of approval, agreeing over prices, conditions that need to be taken care of before placing orders. In addition, there are logistical issues related to many foreign vaccines.
But, is there time for all this in a country which is produced the highest numbers of daily COVID cases and COVID-related deaths? This is a frightening case of policy-paralysis.
Such is the pride of this government that anyone who tries to advise it is met with scorn. Those who advised it to bring in foreign vaccines earlier were labeled as ‘foreign agents’. However, after some time, the government had to bite the bullet. When someone pointed out that SII might need support, they retorted by saying that “who says the SII needs help!”
Even former PM Manmohan Singh’s measured letter, in which he advised the support of vaccine-manufacturing companies, was responded to with disgraceful comments. But within hours, the government felt compelled to announce its support.
Why Didn’t Govt Rope In Private Sector Earlier?
Had the government been proactive instead of reactive, it wouldn’t have waited to act at the eleventh hour. At the beginning, the government hadn’t envisaged the role of the private sector, but with time, it had to turn to the private sector for vaccine production. This shows its lack of evaluation.
Despite knowing that testing and tracing are key to the prevention of COVID, the government’s initial process was slow and rickety.
It was only after the private labs were brought into the fold that the process could pick up. Isn’t this a case of lethal negligence?
When states were gasping for oxygen, the government decided to go for a review meeting.
The states would have to wait longer for the meetings to materialise into results as it involves processes of cutting industrial supplies of oxygen, importing it and finally, addressing logistical issues. But the question is: how will the people survive till then?
The Kumbh Disaster
Despite the country reeling under the second wave, around 50 lakh devotees took a dip in three days during the ongoing Kumbh at Haridwar. Even then, when cornered, the PM appealed to keep it ‘symbolic’.
What if it becomes a super-spreader event? We shouldn’t forget that the country’s positivity rate as on 19 April 2021 is 20 percent. The PM’s intervention could at best be termed as a little too late.
Why Should Decision Of Lockdown Be Left to the States?
Let’s go back a little more. On 13 March 2020, the Health Secretary had clarified that there was ‘no emergency-like situation’ in the country due to COVID. But on 24 March, the country was pushed into nationwide lockdown. As if one government department had no knowledge of the workings of another department. This was truly astonishing.
The lockdown was imposed thoughtlessly. Migrants were forced to walk to their homes. Some even died on the road.
It was then that the government announced help for them by providing some rations and sending money to their accounts. But none of it could reach the migrants on the roads.
This year the decision for lockdowns has been left to the states; clearly, the central government is passing the buck. If indeed that is the case, then why did it choose to go ahead with it last year?
We are not advocating lockdowns, to be clear — but simply questioning the government’s thought process. If lockdown was the way to control the spread of COVID-19 last year, how could it possibly be ‘wrong’ this year, when we are facing caseloads three times that of last year? There is no centralised coordination this year despite the fact that the COVID pandemic at this point has affected the whole country — clearly, this is a case of policy paralysis.
Election Rallies Amid Rising COVID Numbers
It seems that not even a devastating second wave of COVID could deter the government from holding elections which have continued across five states. The announcement of smaller rallies came when most of the polling had been done. BJP’s former president ruled out any connection between rallies and the COVID surge. But soon after, the current president of the BJP stated that the decision of smaller rallies had been taken in the wake of COVID. This is quite confounding to say the least.
Now, coming to the Election Commission. After it was repeatedly censured, the EC came up with the proposal to ban night rallies. Night rallies — seriously?
Reading the COVID data and news each morning is deeply disturbing. Perhaps, anywhere in the world, if there is a chapter taught on policy paralysis, I am afraid, India will have that unenviable position.
(Disclaimer: This piece was originally published on Quint Hindi, and has been translated to English by Virat Vibhu Sharma, and republished with permission The translator can be reached at email@example.com. The original can be read here.)
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