Bad idea to decontrol the vaccine at this stage, Centre must ensure fair distribution

Allowing states to negotiate price and buy vaccines directly from manufacturers is a bad idea, says Chhattisgarh health minister T.S. Singh Deo in this interview to Sanjukta Basu

Bad idea to decontrol the vaccine at this stage, Centre must ensure fair distribution

Sanjukta Basu

Opposition ruled states have been complaining about lack of communication from the Centre. “We were looking for basics on how to get the tests done, what was needed to set up labs, but we had no guidance from Centre. This was in March when the disease had already been declared a global pandemic by WHO,” says a bureaucrat from a state capital.

Another state government official complained that his state was unable to finalise a state-level vaccination strategy in the absence of inputs and clarity from the Centre. The Centre, she said, had been making one blunder after the other.

Opposition-ruled states and leaders had demanded that the phase 3 peer reviewed trial data be made public and all international standards ensured before allowing the vaccines. They pointed out that Brazil had rejected Covaxin and claimed that Bharat Biotech had not taken adequate measures to completely kill or inactivate the virus. So, there were reasons to be concerned but the Centre politicised the issue, attacked the opposition for spreading panic and vaccine hesitancy. But the Centre has not given any answer.

Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan actually boasted about India’s ‘biggest and fastest’ vaccination drive in his letter to former PM Manmohan Singh.

NHS caught up with the Chhattisgarh health minister T.S. Singh Deo. The highest number of people the state vaccinated in one day was 330,000. If the state has vaccines, it can consistently maintain about 250,000 vaccinations per day. But Chhattisgarh has been receiving only 50,000 to one lakh doses of the vaccines per day. Excerpts from the interview with Sanjukta Basu:

Could you please tell readers the effects of the Centre invoking the Disaster Management Act in dealing with the pandemic? Did it help or hinder states?

Covid being a global pandemic, and since we had to start from scratch, from arranging PPE Kits to N95 masks to setting up Covid testing labs, it was important to invoke the national Act. But we soon realised that the Centre was not in sync with real time data from states. That’s when we asked the Centre to allow the states to make their own protocols and take decentralised decisions because the pandemic affects each state differently and even within the same state, several districts posed unique situations.

We have seen the Centre and Union ministers blaming opposition-ruled states for callousness. How has Chhattisgarh fared? I respect Dr Harsh Vardhan a lot but he certainly overreacted. At his position he should respond to criticism in a mature and dignified way. The controversy started because the Centre was not being transparent about vaccine shortage. We are manufacturing only 7 crore vaccines a month. The Centre should tell the nation that there is limited supply, take the country into confidence rather than claiming that there is no dearth of vaccines. The Centre is now saying vaccine production is being increased but it is already too late. Production should have been ramped up by now. The fast tracking of other vaccine candidates should have happened much earlier. At the current pace and capacity, it would take us several years to vaccinate the entire population.

The Centre has now passed the buck to the states for procuring and distributing vaccines? Did the Centre consult states before changing the policy?

The Centre had faltered in hiding the severe vaccine shortage from the country. That led to a crisis and in a knee jerk reaction Centre has now opened up 50% of the vaccines for free market allowing each state, private hospitals etc to negotiate the price and buy them directly. They did not consult the states before taking this decision and I am afraid it does not bode well. It would lead to a mad rush and unhealthy competition. This is not the time for open market. During such volatile times, the Centre must ensure fair distribution of vaccines. Covaxin and Covishield, both vaccines should be routed through the Centre.

The Centre claims to have been consulting the states and points to the PM interacting with the CMs. What has been Chhattisgarh’s experience?

As far as Covid protocol was concerned, there was constructive consultation. It did not seem as if two teams were working, but when the first wave started receding a communication gap emerged. First, there was lack of foresight, then of transparency, then a sense of overconfidence and triumphalism took over and now when the pressure is back at the peak, the Centre seems to be washing its hands off. The second wave is three times worse than the first; we are touching three lakh positive cases every day; it is a time to come together in the spirit of confederation and not drift apart on party lines.

Isn’t the real issue the collapse of the public health service and privatising of medicare?

In 1948 the United Nations passed a resolution for universal healthcare. Till date, only seven to eight countries in the world have been able to achieve that. In 2014 the Congress manifesto included ‘right to health’ and ‘right to housing’. A significant portion of the Budget should be allocated for ensuring universal healthcare as a matter of right instead of some insurance scheme here or a vertical there. What the Congress promised in 2014, the whole country is demanding today. Unfortunately, the nation either did not get the message or did not even understand.

There is admittedly a shortage of doctors, nurses, beds, ventilators and medical oxygen in the country. Has the PM CARES fund helped?

Part of CSR (corporate social responsibility) money was diverted to PM CARES fund. But the industries should have contributed to build health infrastructure in the states, that did not happen; the money got concentrated in the hands of the Centre. The Centre did supply some 200 ventilators but there were various technical glitches. The bottom line is these are insufficient and piecemeal measures to meet the citizens’ need at this crucial hour.

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