For all the charges levelled against the Indian government about its absolutist nature—case in point, demonetisation—and its tendency to make knee-jerk decisions without consultation, only to revoke them later—case in point, Goods and Services Tax—the regime has made decisions in response to the new coronavirus pandemic that may have been the right ones, if only they had been taken earlier or sustained for a little longer. Lighting candles and banging vessels being exempt, of course.
When India announced what was touted as the world’s strictest lockdown, it came about two months too late. As has become habitual, people had between 4 and 24 hours to prepare themselves for three weeks of staying home. Naturally, it sent everyone into panic. Vegetable markets and departmental stores became hotspots for transmission of the virus and the effects were felt during the lockdown.
If only the lockdown had been done in a phased manner, giving people a week to buy supplies, allowing online retailers to make home deliveries, and limiting the number of people in an area right at the start, there would have been less panic and less flirtation with exposure. The states chose to follow suit, surprising the public with lockdowns and leaving us in a permanent state of nervousness. The lockdowns have traditionally been bizarre, and remain so—with a 10 pm to 4 am curfew and a “strict lockdown” on Sundays that has jeopardised wedding plans…all this after allowing people to dip into “holy waters” unmasked, and all that after accusing Muslims of spreading the infection with the Tablighi Jamaat. The fact is, yes, every adherent of every religion who saw fit to congregate at a spot was at fault and the price is being paid by them as well as those of us who were less cavalier.
It would have been sensible to cancel or postpone all examinations—or, at the very least, shift them online. But while there was little hesitation on the part of academic institutions to shift classes online, examinations alone were deemed too sacred to the Indian psyche for us to let go of the traditional trappings.
And even as we fight a second wave, without hospital beds and without enough oxygen, even when we know that the infection carries far beyond a 2-metre distance, election rallies continue to be held in the middle of a pandemic.
There is no point speaking about government spending on statues and fighter jets now—those decisions were made before the coronavirus outbreak, and while their wisdom will always be in question, their irrelevance to the current situation is not.
What is relevant to the quandary in which we find ourselves is the government’s budgeting.
Having held on to the policy of centralised distribution of the vaccine for as long as the insecurity of the leadership was the main issue, they have put the onus on the states now that their own ineptitude is apparent. And they have transferred the financial burden to the states too, while refraining from making the few authoritarian decisions that would have been welcomed by the public—starting with the cost of the vaccine.
India has often been praised for its policy on generic drugs—a policy that has made healthcare accessible and management of terminal illness manageable for decades; a policy that protected the public from the avarice of pharma companies and patents over, for instance, treatment for HIV.
But when the infrastructure is collapsing, the government has chosen to allow the pharma companies to make hay by removing the cap on vaccine prices.
The Serum Institute of India put out figures of Rs. 1200 for two shots in private hospitals and Rs. 800 for two shots in state hospitals—but this is not all the public will have to pay, since these hospitals will be free to charge additional fees for services and the price is exclusive of taxes. The SII vaguely stated that this pricing was less than “American vaccines”, “Russian Vaccines” and “Chinese Vaccines”. Conveniently, the per capita income of the countries in which those vaccines were being administered and their net gains from vaccinating the Indian population was left out.
Public anger at the differential pricing was exacerbated after a now-deleted tweet from Belgian State Secretary for Budget Eva de Bleeker revealed the procurement prices of Covid-19 vaccines. The price for AstraZeneca, manufactured in India as Covishield by SII, was 1.78 euros, significantly lower than Sanofi (7.56 euros), Johnson and Johnson (8.50 euros), Curevac (10 euros), Pfizer (12 euros) and Moderna (18 euros). At today’s exchange rate, Rs. 1200 works out to 13.29 euros. This is the minimum a person aged between 18 and 45 will have to pay at a private hospital for two shots.
Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum Institute of India explained the pricing by stating that other governments across the world had negotiated a $3-4 price per vaccine—which he referred to as “a risk-sharing price”—which enabled them to procure it at a lower cost than the Indian government could.
While we are dealing with what is being called “the double mutant Indian strain”, against which the effectiveness of the vaccine is unknown and the symptoms of which don’t seem detectable by the standard RT-PCR test, we are left to reflect on what might have been, if only international travel had been arrested sooner, if only restrictions had been imposed instead of a late lockdown, if only vaccination had been opened to the general public sooner, if only a reasonable price had been set for vaccination…if only, if only.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com