India can ignore the onset of the second wave of Covid-19 infections at its own peril. The steady surge in the number of cases across several States must be a cause for concern for health authorities at a time when there is criticism over the slow progress of the vaccination drive. After a low weekly average of less than 11,000 cases per day in the second week of February, the cases have now risen to a weekly average of more than 18,000 per day. It is ironic that the country is staring at an explosive situation due to the second wave, though it has the twin advantages of being a global vaccine manufacturing hub that can ramp up production at a short notice and having a long history of successfully running immunisation programmes across difficult geographies and inoculating hundreds of millions of people against polio, measles, tuberculosis and other diseases. There is a need to revisit the vaccination strategy as it has not picked up pace to desired levels since its launch on January 16. The Centre must shed its rigid and restrictive policies pertaining to the vaccination programme and allow people of all age groups to get inoculated through hassle-free and transparent procedures. The current vaccination drive has been bogged down by rigid bureaucratic procedures and inefficient delivery. During the first phase of the programme from January 16 to March 1, only 14 million of the 30 million healthcare and frontline workers were vaccinated.
Apart from the vaccine hesitancy among people, procedural confusion and over-centralisation of the programme have proved to be stumbling blocks. Following criticism and popular backlash, the Centre decided to rope in private hospitals, open up in-person registration at vaccination centres and allow people to choose their centre. Alarmingly, the second wave of the pandemic is spreading through smaller towns and villages which lack the medical infrastructure and resources. There is an urgent need to accelerate the vaccination drive with a clearly specified rollout timeline in rural areas. At present, there are over 20,000 vaccination centres in the country. The number must be increased substantially to meet the demand. An effective vaccination strategy holds key to winning the battle against the virus. At the present pace of vaccination—1.5 million daily—, it will take three-and-a-half years to inoculate 75% of the population and reach herd immunity. The private healthcare industry must be involved fully in the drive without any further delay. Greater participation from the industry would ensure there is minimum wastage of the vaccines. In view of the surge in the infections, particularly in States like Maharashtra, the authorities should increase testing, contact tracing and monitoring patients under home isolation.
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