As India Launches Covid-19 Vaccination Drive, Modi Should Set Target Of Achieving Herd Immunity By Dussehra

As India Launches Covid-19 Vaccination Drive, Modi Should Set Target Of Achieving Herd Immunity By DussehraPrime Minister Narendra Modi.  (Illustration: Swarajya Magazine)
Snapshot
  • Modi should set a target of achieving herd immunity by Dussehra. It is achievable but not unless there is an incentive for the private players to increase supply manifold.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi today (16 January) officially kicked off the largest vaccination drive in the world. The goal is to give shots in the arm to 60-80 per cent of India’s population which translates to 80-100 crore people in the coming months. For now, the central government has set a target of covering three crore people in the next three months - one crore health workers and two crore frontline workers. With 3,000 centres vaccinating 100 people per day, this target should be achieved by end of April.

Next in line are 26 crore people above 50 years of age and one crore people below 50 years of age with diseases. These will be covered in the second phase of the drive. The government plans to finish this by August.

My hunch is that PM Modi will like to achieve this before his address to the nation from the Red Fort. That means that the government machinery will have to be mobilised to carry out over 25 lakh vaccinations per day as opposed to three lakh odd shots everyday during Phase 1. Of course, this can be achieved by simply expanding the number of centres to 25,000 (or increasing number of people covered at each centre) across all states and the union territories. This isn’t a difficult task to execute if the centre and states work jointly.

It’s no mean achievement. We would be covering a population similar to the size of the United States. But let’s put this in perspective. Between 14 December to 14 January, 1.1 crore people were vaccinated in the US, a pace not much faster than what India intends to move at in the initial three months. The incoming Joe Biden administration is planning to vaccinate one-third of the US population by 20 April, when India will be at the verge of covering only three crore people which is just over two per cent of the total population.

With more vaccines on the way and the US private sector taking charge of delivery to every nook and corner of the US, it’s possible that the country will be able to achieve herd immunity by August when India will have covered only 22 per cent of its population.

To achieve herd immunity or reach closer to that target, we will still need to cover over 50 crore more people. Post 15 August, if we continue at the same pace, it will take us eight months to cover 90 crore people, i.e. we will be able to get rid off Covid-19 fully in mid-April 2022. If we double the pace of vaccination, we can reach the target by end of this year.

Clearly, we need to be more ambitious. The economy is set to contract by 7.7 per cent as per advance estimates by the government. The longer we take to end Covid-19, more time states will take to open the economy fully. And recovery period gets prolonged.

A report published by Barclays Investment Bank authored jointly by its Chief Economist for India Rahul Bajoria and Research Analyst Shreya Sodhani sees a solid recovery in FY2021-22 and expects GDP to grow by 8.5 per cent. Its estimate is based on the assumption that India will be able to vaccinate about one-fourth of its population by Q2 of 2021-22 (September end).

“The supply and procurement of the COVID vaccines are unlikely to be a hurdle to achieving the government’s targets,” the report notes. This means that if the government doesn’t take any extraordinary steps, the normal expected supply should meet its present target of vaccinating 30 crore people by August.

Seemingly, there is room for improvement. And India cannot afford to have a top down model of government purchasing vaccines from the manufacturers, then supplying it to centres at state and district level with government controlling everything from purchase to giving the shot.

This strategy should be abandoned as soon as possible, preferably in three months after covering three crore essential healthcare and frontline workers. This period will allow the building of trust in the vaccines among the masses by demonstrating their safety.

Post April, the government needs to allow the private sector to involve comprehensively in procurement, distribution and vaccination. The government can continue to run its program of covering 26 crore people above 50 years of age in the parallel.

In the private sector, let anyone who wants a shot get one irrespective of any criteria. The idea is for enough people to take the shot so that the virus doesn’t spread and end the pandemic as soon as possible. That is more ethical than allowing it to prolong for months over faux morality inflicting damage to thousands of lives and the livelihoods.

The government should avoid meddling too much when it comes to setting price of the vaccine in the private sector. Better and higher price will allow the manufacturers to ramp up production as per the demand in the market and achieve tens of crores of more vaccinations in the same time period.

The government did huge disservice by tightly regulating private labs when it came to testing from price caps to the number of tests they could conduct. Ridiculous restrictions like testing only those with symptoms remained in place for much longer than it was needed and did more harm than good.

By forcing the private hospitals to take Covid-19 patients and not compensating them well, the government did a huge damage to their finances. It’s time it learned from these mistakes and allowed the private sector a wide room in this final phase of the fight against the pandemic.

PM Modi should aim to end Covid-19 nuisance once and forever by setting a target of achieving herd immunity by Dussehra which will fall on 15 October this year. It is achievable but not unless there is an incentive for the private players to increase supply manifold. If experts are estimating 8.5 per cent growth with 25 per cent coverage by August, maybe we can hope again for double digit growth this year with herd immunity by Vijayadashmi. And what could be a better day to finally get the country rid off the Chinese virus.

Arihant is Senior Editor, Swarajya

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