The Maharashtra government has needlessly aggravated Centre-state tensions by publicly flagging the possibility of vaccine shortages and demanding that all people above the age of 25 be eligible for vaccines. These are mutually contradictory demands, for no shortage is going to be relieved by expanding the eligible age groups by several multiples right away.
This politically motivated demand forced Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, one of the mildest of individuals, to hit back by pointing out deficiencies in Maharashtra’s own handling of the Covid and vaccination challenges. It goes without saying that both, state and Centre, must commit to depoliticising the fight against Covid.
The Maharashtra government needlessly upped the ante. If Uddhav Thackeray’s government has a problem with vaccine availability, a quiet discussion with the Health Ministry would have given him better results than shouting from the rooftops about a shortage.
Coming up with solutions like vaccinating everybody above the age of 25 will only worsen the problem. This demand is an indirect acknowledgement that the state government has not been able to get its people to follow Covid safety rules voluntarily. The Marathi manoos for whom the Chief Minister’s heart bleeds, are apparently not listening to him.
All this flows directly from the type of government Uddhav Thackeray chose to head. The coalition government led by him is an unnatural alliance between a Hindutva party and two “secularist” forces, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that all three parties came together for power and pelf and not necessarily to provide high-quality governance.
Political insecurity leads to short-term thinking. The latest crisis, caused by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh’s allegation, that there was pressure to generate Rs 100 crore monthly using discredited encounter cop Sachin Vaze, cannot be dismissed out of hand.
The Bombay High Court has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to make a preliminary enquiry, leading to the exit of the Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, and damaging the credibility of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi coalition.
A coalition under permanent pressure to merely survive is not the best one to provide governance, and this was apparent when last year Maharashtra topped the charts on Covid infections. That it continues to lead in the virus’s second coming tells us much about how poorly the government has dealt with this challenge.
In between the two Covid waves, the most important political questions engaging the coalition’s attentions were how to bring actor Kangana Ranaut to heel, and how to gag Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV by endless police harassment and foisting fictitious “abetment to suicide cases against him”.
When your shortcomings are undeniable, the best political option is to shift the focus to other issues. The open declaration that there is a vaccine shortage – no one can deny that India does not have enough of a stockpile to vaccinate all comers – even while making the contradictory claim that all above 25 must be vaccinated – shows that these claims are entirely political.
The outcomes cannot be good for anyone. Vaccine supplies may be tight, but speaking openly about shortages will lead to a worsening of the crisis as ordinary people start thinking that they must rush to get the vaccine before it gets over.
Other governments, facing similar short-term supply kinks in the face of rising infections, will do the same: shift the blame to someone else.
Two things are obvious: one, vaccine supplies cannot be suddenly raised to meet rising demand, and thus the Centre’s strategy of expanding eligibility slowly is the right one for now. And, two, we cannot be sure that even if more vaccines are made available later this year, possibly after June-July, we will not face another shortage as the virus mutates and current vaccines are found inadequate.
Meanwhile, both Serum Institute, which makes CoviShield, and Bharat Biotech, which makes Covaxin, have sought government help to enhance production capacities. While Serum has sought a massive Rs 3,000 crore, Bharat Biotech has sought around Rs 100 crore.
The policy dilemma is simple: if government gives the money, it can later be accused of favouring two manufacturers over the rest.
Clearly, the policy needs to be company-neutral, even though it is these two companies that can ramp up fast enough to meet rising demand for vaccines not only in India, but all over the world.
These costs are independent of the need to develop newer and better vaccines that are effective against the new mutant strains of Covid.
India is caught between a rock and a hard place as the Covid resurgence has complicated policy choices for everybody. We need to buy time for any policy to work, and this means states must enforce Covid-appropriate behaviours without resorting to self-defeating lockdowns, which are essentially political copouts.
Uddhav Thackeray has not provided great leadership in the state so far in the context of Covid. With the best of governance, Covid is a very tough challenge and things could still go wrong. But if he now thinks shifting the blame to the Centre is going to help him politically deflect the charge of allowing Covid to re-emerge, he is wrong. It is time he stopped playing politics and started governing.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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