Five weeks into the Covid-19 vaccination programme, it is now clear that unless the private sector is involved and allowed to unleash its full potential it would be impossible to meet the inoculation targets. There is also a need to provide flexibility and freedom to the States to formulate their own strategies depending on the local conditions. The Union government must realise the limitations of a policy of centralised control, particularly when faced with a public health crisis of this scale. Since the nationwide vaccination drive began on January 16, the authorities have been able to inoculate, on an average, 2 lakh people per day. At this rate, the goal of vaccinating 30 crore persons in priority groups by July looks impossible to reach. The involvement of the private industry to speed up the process brooks no delay. Already, some parts of the country are witnessing a surge in infections, raising fears over a possible second wave. Being a global vaccine manufacturing hub and having sufficient stocks of doses, India cannot afford to fail in its mission of vaccinating its population within the set timeframe. The urgency of ramping up the drive has been compounded by strong signs since last week that the country may be entering its second wave of Covid-19 infections. The sudden spike in the daily new cases has been reported from Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Punjab. After making a downward trajectory since October, the Covid-19 curve is now moving northwards.
On the floor of Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently made a spirited argument about how the private sector has been serving as a force multiplier in the task of nation-building, wealth creation and the uplift of the poor. He needs to walk the talk by involving the industry in accelerating the vaccination drive. The encouraging words need to be put into action by reposing faith in the private healthcare sector. The government must seriously consider the suggestions by industry pioneers like Devi Shetty and Azim Premji who have proposed an ambitious programme of vaccinating 50 crore people in 30 to 60 days. This will require unleashing India’s private sector energies. At present, a sense of urgency is clearly missing in the Central government-driven programme. While the government can continue its free vaccination drive for priority groups, the private sector must be freed from such bureaucratic exercises. Market dynamics and competition from government facilities will ensure that the prices of vaccines will remain affordable. The initial effort to vaccinate healthcare and frontline workers was a good idea as it helped in knowing how well the digital platform worked. Once its performance has been evaluated in real-time, it is feasible to scale up.
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