At a time when the country is going through its worst crisis since Partition, we must also contend with a crisis of confidence: no one believes the government, its numbers, and actions.
Mindless claims that we have reached 170+m vaccinations faster anyone else, of 180 districts (of a total of nearly 700) have no cases. Who cares? Our population is 1.3 billion – has 11% had one shot? How long will it take for the rest? And what about the 538 other districts with a high positivity rate?
Why have three states – Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan – got more than their share of oxygen, Remdesivir and Vaccines? (this is based on the government’s filings in court). Perhaps Maharashtra’s outbreak justifies its allocation, but what about Gujarat and Rajasthan? Are they under-reporting cases as local media claims in near-daily reports – and is this why get are getting more? Or is there another explanation for why Gujarat and Rajasthan get the same allocation as UP?
The government has the means to be transparent. The Cowin website is so granular that you can track the number of vaccines given on a day by the hour at a centre anywhere in the country. Let’s also have a public website showing the movement of oxygen, the exact distribution of all foreign aid, of crucial drugs like Remdesivir. It isn’t that hard – every truck today has GPS and can be tracked. Similarly, there is so much talk of the 160+ oxygen plants sanctioned last year but where are they? There should a site sharing the daily progress for these as well as the new ones that were recently cleared. With thousands monitoring these sites, there will be no room for politics.
On vaccines, we seem to have lost the early wins and need to seriously look at what we are doing.
As some states have suggested, split the Cowin site by state, with separate servers to bring down the load so the site doesn’t keep crashing. Separately, the current system for the 18-45 age group is absolutely wasteful. Since they have to register and are not allowed walk-ins, they have to try and log in everyday to try and find a slot. Why can’t it be simplified: register for a place/district/area and you are put in a queue. (Intezaar keejeye). Whenever your chosen location has a slot, you’ll get an SMS. It will stop millions of the most productive age group spending hours everyday chasing the few slots available.
Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson have been given to vast numbers in the US and UK. Both these countries have large India/south Asian ethnic populations, who would have received one of these doses. That should be enough evidence to allow their emergency use immediately. And since no one in the world seems to be really using Johnson and Johnson, we should incentivize them hugely, because as a one-shot vaccine, its usage can enable us to double the pace of vaccination. In fact, incentives are needed all vaccine manufacturers to step up production. We need to have more than 250 million doses a month, that’s four times the current production and 50% more than the target for July. Only at that level will we able to fight off the third wave. With the Finance Ministry saying it has set aside Rs 35,000 crore for vaccines, it can afford to open its potli and encourage manufacturers to come in and mass produce. We are going to need vaccines for a long time. Covid mutations aren’t going away in a hurry, so we will need reinoculations next year and beyond.
Genome sequencing also needs big-time funding. Over a year after the pandemic broke out, our ability to genome sequence is running at a level close to or below that of Bangladesh.
With numbers in some key states showing a decline, the inevitable question that arises is how do we open up after being locked down in most parts of the country? We cannot go back to the open-for-business model we followed in February until we have reached a vaccination number pf close 700-800 million. If we do, the third wave is going to hit us very hard. We have to recognize that Covid is an airborne disease and closed quarters are a recipe for disaster until the vaccination campaign reaches an appropriate number – and this number has to be factored in by office, factory, business or district.
It’s essential to recognize that outdoors is safest. (NYT reports that less than 1% of cases of Covid have been in open air; though whether they have looked at the transmission after India’s political and religious rallies is not clear. We don’t need confined, air-conditioned spaces like malls, cinema halls and even restaurants. Yes it tough to do without these, but if they can do it abroad, so can we. Secondly, offices must be encouraged to keep as much staff working from home as far as possible until they are vaccinated.
Railways, banks, airlines should have their employees prioritised for vaccination. Yes, it’s discriminatory, but they are also at greater risk. Our IT sector has taken a huge Covid hit and desperately needs to be back on its feet as global businesses are quickly shifting backroom operations to other countries. Since younger people are becoming a high-risk group, and many worry that the third wave could hit those under 18, colleges and schools should remain closed until we can meet the vaccination demands there. Religious gathering and celebrations are a taboo. We cannot risk these huge gatherings even if they are in the open.
Finally, while planning for the third wave, and may be a fourth, we need properly-formulated guidelines that trigger local restrictions without the long political infighting and fear of economic downturn. Since our ability to fudge numbers is high, the criteria need to be worked out very carefully. Perhaps a start is making it a criminal offence for state officials not to report the correct figures of cases and deaths.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.