- Modi announced last Monday that vaccines were now free for all adults in India.
- But private hospitals will still charge for vaccines, and it is unclear whether the government has enough stock of free vaccines.
- 200,000 Indians have died since the start of the vaccination drive thanks to the government’s mismanagement.
- Peony Hirwani is a culture and political journalist.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In the past five months, Indians have seen thousands of people die due to lack of oxygen, medication, ventilators, and hospital beds. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the nation with trepidation and has cost Indians more than it should.
Last Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that vaccines were free for all adult citizens. As delightful as the news sounds, later clarification showed this wasn’t actually the case. Private hospitals will continue charging for the vaccine, and the supply at government hospitals — where the vaccine is free — has been tragically low so far. From the start, India’s vaccine drive has been terribly mismanaged, costing thousands of Indians their lives.
Not enough people vaccinated
As of June 10, 359,000 Indians have lost their lives to the disease. Some of them could have been saved if the vaccine drive was better managed.
India began its inoculation drive on January 16 when it managed to administer a little less than 200,000 doses to frontline workers. On April 2, the number of administered vaccines rose to 4.3 million doses, and starting May 1, when the government announced vaccinations were available for everyone 18 years and older, the number of administered vaccines, on average, was around one million doses per day — far less than it should be for a country with 1.38 billion people.
As the 18 and older population attempted to sign up for a vaccine appointment on May 1, the registration websites crashed, and when people finally managed to get themselves registered, there were no slots available in most states. (Based on personal experience, the situation is still the same). Modi basically announced the second phase of the biggest vaccine drive in the world while knowing there wasn’t sufficient stock available.
So far, only 5% of eligible adults have been completely vaccinated in India — when we look at the entire population, the percentage drops to 3%.
High cost barrier
One of the primary reasons why more people haven’t gotten their jabs is due to the cost barrier and unavailability of doses.
India’s two leading vaccines, Covaxin and Covishield (AstraZeneca), have been administered to eligible citizens in government hospitals for free, but private institutions have been charging a whopping rate of 800-1400 rupees ($10.92-$19.11) for the jab. It’s next to impossible to register for an appointment at a government facility due to low stock, so most of the population, including me, had to choose the private option. I personally paid 850 rupees for my shot, a price which is completely unaffordable for a lower-wage worker who is looking to get their entire family vaccinated.
“I am so scared of the disease,” Dinesh Ramkumar, a watchman in the state of Rajasthan, told me. “One of our family members got infected a month ago and we spent almost all our savings for his treatment. Now, we were dependent on the government to provide us with free vaccines, but every time I go to the government center, they say that they don’t have any stock left … there’s no way I can pay 1,000 rupees for one vaccine as my family has 10 people, and it would cost me 10,000 rupees.”
On Tuesday, after Modi’s announcement the day before that vaccines would be free, the government announced several changes to its vaccine policy, including a new cap on prices that private hospitals can charge. However, in many cases, these caps are higher than what the prices were before. The government has also capped the service charge for getting the shot at 150 rupees — a price which makes the whole thing unviable for the people who need the vaccine most.
Just last week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dismissed Bharat Biotech’s proposal for emergency use authorization for their Covaxin vaccine in the US. This news has certainly added to the already existing vaccine hesitancy concerns in India. It will also put a strain on India to develop enough doses of Covishield for the country’s population.
The Indian authorities have released a statement saying that Covaxin not getting emergency approval in the US won’t affect India’s vaccine drive, but that likely won’t change how residents see the news.
It’s baffling how mismanaged the entire immunization drive has been from the beginning. How did the world’s biggest antibody producer, dubbed the “pharmacy of the world,” end up with so few vaccines for itself?
More than 200,000 people have died in India since inoculation began. That’s how many lives would have been saved if the authorities had prepared for the second wave by arranging resources, ordering more vaccines, and making them available for free.
We all know that the only way to beat this deadly virus is through vaccines. So, why weren’t we ready? After the declarations this week, it still doesn’t feel like the vaccine has really been made free.
Based on how things have gone, I worry that people still won’t be able to register for the free shots as promised. Is there any meaning attached to Modi’s words? Only time will tell.