The extraordinary outburst by Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan against Opposition-ruled states, particularly Maharashtra, for allegedly botching up the vaccination drive against Covid19 is disturbing and marks a new low in Centre-state relations.
The minister’s harsh criticism of alleged ‘misgovernance’ in the states derailing the Centre’s attempt to step up the battle against Covid19, coming as it does in the midst of an alarmingly steep surge in new cases across the country – India is now reporting the highest number of new infections in the world by a large margin, as well as a sharp increase in mortalities – creates unnecessary friction between the Centre, which is controlling all aspects of vaccine distribution, and the states, which have to actually execute the vaccination drive on the ground.
The minister has lambasted the opposition-run states for their poor vaccination rate. Pointing to Chhattisgarh, which had put the rollout of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin on hold till Phase 3 trial results were published, he went so far as to charge these states with encouraging vaccine hesitancy through their actions.
The minister’s outburst is singularly ill-timed, coming as it does when the so-called ‘second wave’ of infections is hitting alarming new highs. It will also serve to further strain relations between the Centre and the states at a time when the entire government machinery at both the Central and the state levels has to pull together if India is not to be overwhelmed by the new crisis. His singling out of opposition-run states is also quite unjustified, given that vaccine shortage is a reality that virtually every state in the country is grappling with at the moment.
In fact, the situation in Maharashtra, where the state had a little over three days’ worth of stocks of the vaccine (and another eight days’ worth in the pipeline) is better than, for instance, BJP-run UP, which has only 2.5 days’ worth stocks, and NDA-run Bihar, where stocks have fallen to an alarming 1.6 days’ worth. In fact, Maharashtra is currently leading the country both in terms of the total number of vaccines administered (over 9.1 million), as well as the average number of vaccines administered per day.
Rather than try and politicise the issue, the Centre needs to sit down and urgently review it and come up with corrective actions and solutions. It cannot escape its share of the blame, since it solely controls both the acquisition of vaccine stocks from manufacturers and their distribution to states. Rather than apportioning blame, the focus must be on how to sharply step up the availability of vaccines, along with a much more serious attempt to reinforce Covid-appropriate behaviour among the public, particularly in connection to masking up and practising social distancing.
The Centre needs to shed the opacity around vaccine approvals. It can consider giving emergency use authorisations to more vaccines, particularly those which have already been approved in other parts of the world and which have been administered in significant quantities elsewhere. Vaccine manufacturers in India can also be assisted with funds – and sufficient advance orders – to scale up capacity significantly.