There can be little history anywhere in the world of an explosion of the same infection, in some cities to ten times what it had come down to, when a vaccination drive has been purportedly “expanded”. And the fact that it is happening here is a humongous failure on the part of the central and state governments.
It has been over a year since India first went into lockdown. It has been nearly three months since the inoculation against Covid-19 first began. But the numbers of eligible people turning up have been abysmal. The government's official figures are 75 million vaccinations. Our World in Data says 37 million have received one dose and only 7.5 million have been fully vaccinated over 70 days. Even going by the government's figures, at the current rate, it will be over three years before the entire country is vaccinated. And this is a vaccine that is likely to have to be taken annually.
While misinformation has discouraged millions of eligible recipients from signing up, insistence on registration through an app that will add to the already enormous database of personal and sensitive data at some primary health care centres has sent back others.
Meanwhile, the government has failed to make provisions for a backup list. Instead, it has now tightened the rules, claiming people have been “misusing the system” to “jump the queue”.
What the health ministry should have focused on is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. A queue can be shuffled in order to prioritise, but a queue should not be cut off for no reason except vague “rules”. Decisions were made by the powers that be that they should live to regret, now that there is very clearly a second wave—and it is likely we will have new strains of Covid-19 breaking out in the months to come.
First, there was the drive to administer Covaxin, with great secrecy around the results of trials.
Second, while the government was busy begging people not to “believe in hearsay”, sounding more defensive than convincing, it made little effort to actually inform people on the mechanics of the vaccination and how they must behave after taking the vaccine. The reason there are cases of people contracting Covid after having received both shots of the vaccine is that they have not been told clearly enough that a vaccine does not immediately make them immune to disease. In fact, it does not make them immune to disease at all—there is only evidence that severe infection can be prevented once the body is equipped with its arsenal.
Then, there is the case of lack of enforcement of safety protocols. I find people sitting without masks in dental clinics, at departmental stores, and inside banks. Worse, most of the staff walk around with masks around their necks, or covering only their mouths and not their noses. It appears the police have stopped fining people for travelling without masks.
But one of the most significant failures with respect to the vaccine is that there was no provision for a backup list. It is heartbreaking to think of the number of opened vials that must have been wasted simply because people who were eligible did not turn up, and people who could have benefited from a backup list were not eligible. Instead, those who did manage to get vaccinated have been accused of “jumping the queue”.
The number of cases in most cities had come down to under 200 a day, only for it to go up to more than 1000, three months into vaccination.
It does not help that political parties have decided to forge ahead with the elections across several states, increasing the risk of spread while campaigning, making advertisements for the campaign, and at the time of voting, to say nothing of party celebrations.
Of course, places of worship were opened months before they should have been and festivals have been allowed to go ahead. The pictures from Maha Shivratri celebrations across the country were horrifying—there was hardly a mask to be seen, and the photographs might as well have been from a different year. And no, I’m not taking issue simply with Hindu places of worship, but also churches and mosques and gurdwaras.
A surprisingly sensible announcement came from Saudi Arabia in March 2021, making the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for all pilgrims to Hajj.
With the current Indian government’s track record of making everything mandatory, from apps to linking of various identity proofs, it would neither have been hard nor unpopular to make the Covid-19 shot mandatory in order for people to attend public gathering or travel.
A disease can only be eradicated by vaccination. With a new wave of suspicion against all vaccination, and a stubborn keenness to believe—in spite of millions of deaths over the last year—the conspiracy theorists, it is hard enough to keep the world safe. To make the rules about who qualifies for vaccination more stringent and not have opened it up for the public even three months into what is more a stroll than a drive is a suicidal move.
It is ironic that a government that has had little respect for individual choice in matters relating to privacy must be so lax about a matter of public health. Every eligible person who doesn’t get vaccinated is a mobile health risk to tens of others, who will become mobile health risks to tens more each. And for as long as the government doesn’t open up its vaccination programme, the virus will keep winning.
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