Speed up vaccine drive for faster herd immunity

India’s weekly average of cases is rising again after several weeks of steady decline. Maharashtra, perhaps India’s most economically crucial state, is threatening more stringent measures after imposing a lockdown on three districts. Fresh cases in Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and MP are also on the health ministry radar now. The rising Coronavirus cases in Maharashtra are not the first time that a state has seen a second wave of infections in this epidemic. Delhi has had three distinct waves, each with a bigger peak than the previous one. Punjab and Madhya Pradesh have seen multiple periods of growth and slowdown of infections. If this is the onset of a second wave, the best countermeasure available – vaccination – must be scaled up immediately.  With over 1.1 crore healthcare and frontline workers administered the vaccine against Covid-19 till now, India boasts of ranking third, after the US and the UK, in the highest cumulative vaccination numbers. However, while it is a commendable achievement, the figure amounts to a minuscule fraction of our over 130 crore people. The pace of the ongoing vaccination programme needs to be speeded up so as to build a wall of immunity against the contagious coronavirus. Massive logistics put in place for the transportation, storage and administration of the two doses currently available and those in-the-making should facilitate faster and wider coverage.The current vaccination strategy, despite best intentions, is inoculating less than 2 lakh persons on most days. At this pace, India’s hopes of vaccinating 30 crore persons in priority groups by July look impossible. However, leading lights of India’s private sector like Devi Shetty and Azim Premji have proposed a far more ambitious programme of vaccinating 50 crore people in 30 to 60 days. This will require unleashing India’s private sector energies to solve the problem of scale.

 After the Union Budget pushed a strong privatisation agenda, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made spirited arguments indicating how the private sector can act as a force multiplier in solving national problems. He recalled private enterprise successes in telecom and pharma sectors that have improved the quality of life for the poor while pointing out the limitations of babudom. Trusting the private healthcare sector in boosting vaccination – to tackle the most critical problem facing India today – will translate such talk into practice instantly. Market dynamics and competition from government facilities will ensure that private hospitals and clinics price their offerings in a range that helps them tap the widest possible clientele. High vaccine stocks coupled with an ample number of vaccination sites will rule out supply bottlenecks driving up prices if that is what government fears. High vaccine hesitancy and complacency surrounding Covid are also reasons to take a war footing approach to vaccination. A high decibel campaign to promote vaccination and masking can no longer wait.  There are many questions and not good answers. The very different trajectories in different states just there is still a lot that we do not know about the nature and behaviour of Coronavirus.
 

- -Prabhakar Purandare

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