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Political gamesmanship in the fight against the Virus

From the beginning of 2021, India was basking in its perceived victory in the fight against Coronavirus since the daily infections had dropped to less than 20,000 from early January. Governments, both at the centre and state, were patting themselves on the back. The public, not to be left behind, thought they could go about their life normally as the official figures that were coming out were miniscule given the size of our population. The death rate continued to be one of the lowest in the world with the recovery rate being one of the highest. In a country of over 1300 million people these figures did not raise any concerns except for the immediate near and dear ones of the deceased. 

The nation failed to understand the nature this enemy that was invisible to all barring a few researchers and testing laboratories after heavy magnification using special instruments. The virus remained many steps ahead of the nation. If one of its variants was controlled or checked, it mutated in retaliation to present new variants that were more deadly and spread even faster.  There were indications to this effect from UK, Brazil, South Africa and Europe but our nation was past caring in the euphoria of its win. By mid-February, the state of Maharashtra gave many warning signs of something new coming our way. But alas, the nation did not care or pay heed. A few weeks later the situation became grave in the country. The authorities floundered at all levels while citizens suffered as the virus had struck back with vengeance.

Whatever happens in India, good or bad, politics is always around the corner. In the present fight against the virus even more so. Soon ‘blame game’ between the state and centre became the agenda of priority for leaders at all levels as the numbers graph moved northwards in a near vertical line. India became the world leader in number of daily cases being reported. Shortage of essential medicines, medical equipment, beds and oxygen suddenly hit the country from nowhere. The authorities were clueless as the virus onslaught spread from Maharashtra to Delhi, UP, Punjab, Karnataka and many other states. 

While all this was happening, political blame game grew to a crescendo. Non-BJP ruled states blamed the BJP government at the centre who in turn blamed the local governments in these states. States ruled by BJP were quiet and devoid of this blame game for obvious reasons. While all this was happening, there were a few absurdities that stood out like sore thumbs. Delhi Chief Minister’s penchant for appearing on television continued unabated and his pet line for the public ‘together we will beat the Coronavirus’ sounded as hollow as was his government’s arsenal to fight the virus. There was no togetherness in this fight as people of Delhi kept running from pillar to post in search of a bed, an injection, an oxygen cylinder or a COVID 19 test. 

The Indian vaccination drive that started on 16 January and was open for citizens above forty-five years of age, was having a near dream run. Daily and cumulative vaccination numbers vied, and at times superseded, with the more developed nations of the world including the USA. The opposition in the country could not digest this success of the government. Soon the issue of vaccination for all gathered steam towards the end of March. This was a clever political ploy by the opposition to corner the BJP government. The centre and state governments were well aware of the limitations imposed by the vaccine production capacities of the two Indian manufacturers apart from the humongous effort involved in opening the vaccination for all citizens above eighteen years of age. But political compulsions overtook rationality.

The opposition ruled states and their parties saw this as an opportunity to embarrass the central government and convey to the young voters that they were being put at risk by BJP by not including them in the vaccination program. The governments in these states knew that the so far well executed phased vaccination drive would be jeopardised. But they did not care. The sad part is BJP government after a few days of hesitation, became a partner in crime and announced vaccine for all from 1 May with registration starting from 28 April. More than 13 million people registered in a few hours on the first day itself. The uncertainties surrounding the efficacy of how to meet the challenges of vaccinating such huge numbers ensured that no vaccination slots were given despite registration. 

As if that was not enough, the government came out with a three-tier price plan for the vaccine doses. The cheapest rate was reserved for purchases by the centre while the states would have to pay double that rate. The sale of the dose in private hospitals was even higher. It remains a mystery as to who advised the government on such a pricing and why. But one thing stood out clearly that it was devoid of logic as also compassion for the common citizen. This move by the government provided a handle to the opposition to slam the government. The BJP leadership failed in its much-publicised resolve to provide free vaccine to all citizens.

The credibility of the whole vaccination program has taken a hit that has resulted in public anger and apathy towards the central government. Today, this politically motivated decision has all but derailed the otherwise successful vaccination drive of the country. Most states have officially stated on 30 April that they are not in a position to meet the deadline of 1 May because of shortage of vaccine supplies. Those above forty-five years old, who were still waiting to get the first or second dose, are now not sure when they would get their second dose. Vaccination centres are trying to figure out how they will control the rush that is likely to bring its own set of problems. 

There is no way the nation can vaccinate 70% of its population, about 910 million people, in a matter of two or three months. The average daily doses administered In last few weeks have been between 3.0 to 4.0 million. It may be possible to increase this to about 5 million on a daily basis subject to increased vaccine availability. Even at this rate, it will take at least six months of uninterrupted effort to vaccinate the target population. If the nation can achieve this, it will be an incredible effort. Any half-baked plans based on political compulsions to do it in a shorter time frame will only be counterproductive.

‘Vaccine for all’ is a typical case where if you cannot be one up against your opponent, pull him one down as it amounts to the same thing. The opposition has been successful in doing that. But the real blame for this fiasco lies with BJP leadership as it succumbed to political gamesmanship instead of standing firm on a decision that was in national interests. 



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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