One would not expect a Prime Minister’s address to the nation to become a battleground for a game of political one-upmanship, much less in the time of a public health crisis. Unfortunately, Narendra Modi’s address on vaccination policy, a pressing national issue, bore the hallmarks of a political speech intended to score some brownie points. It was quite deplorable that he chose the address to the nation to blame the States for the vaccination mess created by the Centre’s flawed and tentative approach. This has the potential to cause avoidable friction between the Centre and States. After his government faced flak from the judiciary, opposition parties and health experts, the Prime Minister made the volte-face on the inoculation policy but sought to make it appear as if the opposition-ruled States were responsible for all that has gone wrong on the vaccination front so far. The truth is that the NDA government’s vaccination strategy has been flawed, patchy and ineffective from the beginning and, more importantly, has failed to consult the States to build a consensus. While it is a welcome development that the Centre has decided to take over the vaccine procurement to the extent of 75%, leaving the rest to the private hospitals, and give them for free to the States from June 21 to vaccinate all adults in the country, one wonders why it took such a long time for the government to wake up to this responsibility. The present policy, unveiled on May 1, had only resulted in a huge shortage of Covid-19 vaccines and also inequity in distribution.
The Centre’s climbdown comes less than a week after the Supreme Court expressed its strong disapproval of the vaccination policy, which put the entire onus of giving doses to adults in the 18-44 age group on the States and private hospitals, calling it irrational and arbitrary and asked the government to undertake a fresh review of its policy. The apex court has rightly flagged several issues concerning the inoculation strategy — differential pricing, lopsided procurement policy, lack of clarity on budgetary spending on vaccines and digital divide leading to vaccine inequity. In fact, the system of differential pricing is in conflict with the constitutional balance of responsibilities between the Centre and States. There has been no sense of urgency on the part of the Centre in increasing vaccine availability. Though an expert group was set up to coordinate vaccination strategy, the government did not place any advance orders for vaccines, domestic or foreign. The resulting supply crunch, most evident in May, prompted the Supreme Court to criticise the government. Instead of resorting to blame games, the Centre must focus its attention on ramping up vaccination coverage.
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