From Vaccine Diplomacy To Testing, How Centre Is Handling Covid Crisis

This morning over 2.17 lakh new cases were reported in 24 hours – the second consecutive day with more than two lakh, and the tenth with over one lakh

From Vaccine Diplomacy To Testing, How Centre Is Handling Covid Crisis

India has over 16 lakh active COVID-19 cases – the highest since the pandemic began (File)

New Delhi:

As India battles a second, and even bigger, wave of coronavirus cases – this morning over 2.17 lakh new cases were reported in the past 24 hours – and the government’s handling of the pandemic and vaccination drive come under scrutiny, an NDTV analysis suggests a flip-flop on key policies and decisions may have led to a delay in taking and implementing crucial measures.

Vaccine Diplomacy: The export of millions of doses of vaccines was praised by the global community, with the World Health Organisation hailing the promotion of vaccine equity. However, as states ran out of doses the question arose – did the government miscalculate requirements?

On March 24 Covishield export was halted but, by then, over 64 million doses had been sent to around 80 countries and only 52 million were administered in India. It took the government another three weeks to (implicitly only) acknowledge the shortage and rush to widen the vaccine basket.

On Monday Russia’s Sputnik V was cleared for use, with other foreign vaccines urged to apply.

That was three days after Rahul Gandhi asked why vaccines manufactured abroad were not being allowed into the country. The Congress MP was slammed for asking that question; Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad accused him of lobbying for foreign pharma firms.


The Sputnik V vaccine was developed by Russia (File)

Two days before Mr Gandhi’s question Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan told NDTV: “I am assuring everyone there is no vaccine shortage.”

That same day Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla told NDTV existing production capacities were “very stressed” and that it would take three months, and Rs 3,000 crore, to scale up.

Government Claims vs ‘Tika Utsav‘ Reality: India’s vaccination drive began January 16 but has had mixed success so far, with some states lagging behind. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a ‘tika utsav‘ between April 11 and 14 to encourage vaccinations.

On Thursday the centre said the utsav was a success and pointed to an increase in the number of vaccination centres – nearly 70,000 during that period as opposed to around 45,000 otherwise. However, while the number of centres operating increased by about 50 per cent, average daily vaccinations dropped by nearly 11 per cent – from 36.29 lakh to 32.24 lakh.

The first day of the ‘utsav‘ – a Sunday – saw hundreds of centres across Maharashtra (which has over six lakh active cases) and Odisha shut because there were no vaccines. And in the days leading up to this ‘utsav‘, and while it was going on, at least nine states flagged the shortage of vaccines.

Remdesivir: On Sunday the government banned the export of the drug, which it says offers shortened recovery time for COVID-19 patients. However, it also said there is no shortage.


India launched its national vaccination drive on January 16 (File)

Contradicting reports emerged from Maharashtra, Gujarat, UP, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, including those of theft, black market sales and fakes.

On Tuesday Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said: “There is no shortage of Remdesivir…”.

Less than 24 hours later the government said it would add six more manufacturers and ramp up production to an extra 39 lakh vials per month. On the same day, UP officials flew to Gujarat to get Remdesivir vials for the state.

Oxygen Supply: Over the past few weeks several states have expressed concern over the supply of oxygen cylinders for critically-ill patients; in some states, like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, hospitals began turning away COVID-19 patients because they had no oxygen.

Last week Dr Vardhan said there was no shortage. On Thursday the government not only said it was boosting production but also importing 50,000 metric tonnes. Today Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed oxygen availability across India and ordered smooth inter-state movement of medical oxygen.

Testing: COVID-19 testing has been a problem, particularly the increased use of the more reliable RT-PCR kits.

On March 17 the government told states to ramp up testing, and ensure that 70 per cent of all tests should be of the RT-PCR variety. A month later even the worst-hit ones – like Maharashtra (57 per cent), UP (45 per cent) and Chhattisgarh (28 per cent) are below that mark.


Holding the mega Kumbh in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar amid the pandemic has been criticised (File)

On Tuesday the government said it had told states ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research, the nodal body in this crisis) was “willing to help high-burden states with mobile testing vans”.

Mutant Strains: India’s genome sequencing rate has been dismal. Only 14,000 samples have been sequenced so far – which is less than one per cent of all positive samples. There has also been an issue with transparency; an example is Maharashtra’s “double mutant” strain.

As on March 24 the state reported 206 such cases. That number remains unchanged till now, despite health experts and doctors flagging mutant strains as the reason for the spike in cases.

The ‘Indian strain’, which this week spread to the United Kingdom, was first reported in mid-January, but the centre remains tight-lipped about its role in the second wave.

Government Messaging: The standing safety protocol in the pandemic is – wear face masks and maintain social distancing when in public – a message frequently repeated by the government, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, senior leaders, including the Prime Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah, have been active on the campaign trail in Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Their rallies draw tens of thousands, many of whom had no masks and very few of whom bothered about “do gaz ki doori“.

And then there is the mega Kumbh in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar – where hundreds of thousands of devotees have gathered to bathe in the Ganga, many again without social distancing and masks – in the middle of a pandemic.

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