States issuing separate global tenders speaks of Centre’s abdication on vaccines. High time it listens, course corrects
India’s anti-Covid vaccination plans are in disarray, and the Centre seems to be living in denial. On Monday, it assured the Supreme Court that it is in control of the situation and said that it is working with private manufacturers to ensure equity in vaccine supplies — this, as reports abound of people being turned away from vaccination centres and states delaying or suspending the inoculation drive for the 18-44 age group. Reports in this paper have revealed the lack of thought behind exports, the sharp vaccine dip in the most vulnerable districts nationwide and the fact that seven states account for 85 per cent of the people who have received the jab after inoculation was opened to the 18-44 group. Seven of the 13 states that together account for more than 80 per cent of the country’s active caseload administered a dismal 5.86 per cent of doses in that group. That even Delhi has been forced to shut down 100 inoculation centres and resort to global tenders for vaccines is telling. This is a programme that has not only left states to their own devices but also forced them into a desperate competition with each other to procure the most effective shield against the rampaging virus — at least nine other states, Karnataka, UP, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Odisha and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, have floated or are considering floating global tenders.
Before May 1, when the decentralised procurement plan was operationalised, the vaccination programme relied on logistics put in place by the Universal Immunisation Programme. This ensured a fair degree of cohesion in the dispersal of vaccines, though supply constraints had begun to surface in March. Centralised procurement ensured economies of scale that translated into cost-effectiveness for state governments. Since May, states and private providers have been on their own in managing logistics for shots for the younger age group. The new policy has fragmented the vaccine market, making the 28 states of the Indian Union separate entities in their negotiations with manufacturers. No other country has resorted to such senseless laissez faire for good reason: It’s sound public policy that procurement and equitable distribution of a scarce public good is undertaken by a centralised authority. It’s solid economics and politics as well, especially with respect to global tenders.
Mandatory online registration for the vaccines has introduced another skew against rural areas — almost twice the percentage of people in cities have access to the internet compared to those in villages. Tech-savvy urban dwellers are alerted to slots opening in rural areas, while the lack of basic digital literacy — and smartphones — makes operating CoWin a struggle for a substantial number of people in villages. Leaders of 12 parties and four CMs of Opposition-ruled states have written to the Centre asking it to procure vaccines and make them accessible to all. For the sake of the country’s 1.3 billion pandemic-struck population and to ensure that vaccine doesn’t become the next oxygen, the government should correct its course rather than bluster and blunder on.
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