By next week the Serum Institute could be forced to halve its production of Covid vaccines because the Government of India has placed no fresh orders. Alarm bells should be ringing loudly in Delhi but there is no indication yet that they are. It is as if nobody in Narendra Modi’s government has noticed that just over half of our population is fully vaccinated and that a huge section of those who have been fully vaccinated are going to need booster shots soon. Are the high officials who man the vaccination fask force going to let us down again since none of them were punished last time?
The Prime Minister’s response to criminal negligence by his high officials has been silence. But the ministry in charge of Modi propaganda went into overdrive and tried to change the subject. Huge hoardings appeared in Delhi that said ‘Dhanyavaad Modi’. The campaign continued through vaccination certificates. India is the only democratic country that has pictures of the Prime Minister on vaccination certificates. This sometimes causes confusion among health officials at foreign airports. Government propaganda usually fails to obliterate serious mistakes, but full marks to Modi’s officials for trying. A nationwide cacophony has been raised over the ‘largest free vaccine programme in the world’.
When we reached 100 crore doses, Modi changed his profile picture on Twitter from a masked mugshot of himself to this declaration ‘Congratulations India, 100 crore COVID-19 doses administered’. Well, this time if we suddenly discover that the Government of India has failed once more to order sufficient supplies of vaccinations, orchestrated campaigns in praise of our ‘great leader’ will not work.
Now let us turn to what Adar Poonawalla said in an interview last week. The man whose Serum Institute is almost singularly responsible for saving India from the horror of death and disease on an unprecedented scale had this to say. “I am actually in a dilemma that I never imagined… We are producing 250 million doses a month, but the good news is that India has covered up a large part of its population and we would have completed all our orders to the Ministry of Health in a week’s time… With no other orders on hand, I am going to reduce production by at least 50 per cent to begin with.” He added that his company, which is credited with being the world’s largest vaccine producer, has lost its international market in the past eight months because it gave priority to the needs of India. Other players have occupied the Serum Institute’s space in the world market.
This column has argued more than once that the Prime Minister should have sacked every single member of his vaccination task force for their negligence. Since this did not happen, the man who heads the task force, V K Paul, has started to reappear on our TV screens to gloat about reaching 100 crore doses. Will someone please point out to this mighty mandarin that just over half of our population is fully vaccinated? Will someone remind him that booster doses are being given in countries in which many more people are fully vaccinated and that children are now being vaccinated?
From Day 1 terrible mistakes have been made in the handling of this pandemic. These mistakes have caused untold suffering for our most vulnerable citizens. The first mistake was that brutal lockdown, imposed with almost no notice, that forced millions of Indians abruptly rendered unemployed and homeless in our cities to start walking to their villages, since every means of public transport had been halted. Mistake number two came with the Prime Minister’s triumphalist declaration to the World Economic Forum that India was an example of how to beat Covid-19. Weeks later, while Modi busied himself with the elections in West Bengal, came the Delta variant, and this time it was not just our poorest citizens who were hit. Everyone was. Rich and middle-class Indians in Delhi, including close relatives of mine, could not find beds in hospitals or the oxygen that may have saved their lives. Medicines became unavailable except on the black market.
Ever since the horrific second Covid wave has waned, that same note of triumphalism has come back into the orchestrated cacophony that fooled Modi in the past. So far nobody in the Government of India appears to have noticed that the Serum Institute finds itself in the uncomfortable position of needing to cut vaccine production by half. Nor has there been any attempt to buy the 500 million doses that this company has in stock and that will become useless in nine months. So, we could see a situation in which Omicron will spread across the country and cause problems as dire as the ones Delta created last summer when pyres burned day and night in crematoriums and bodies were dumped in shallow graves on the banks of the Ganga.
The fact is that almost half of India’s population has not been fully vaccinated yet, despite vaccines being in abundance. Instead of believing his propaganda machine, the Prime Minister needs to order his Health Minister to immediately buy the doses needed not just to complete the vaccination process but for the boosters that will be required by those whose last dose was taken more than nine months ago. We can quite simply not afford another serious mistake. Too many have been made. We must not forget or forgive.