Five weeks after commencement of the vaccination drive, it has become fairly obvious that further delay in utilising private sector capacity can impose immense costs. India’s weekly average of cases is rising again after several weeks of steady decline. Maharashtra, perhaps India’s most economically crucial state, is threatening more stringent measures after imposing a lockdown on three districts. Fresh cases in Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and MP are also on the health ministry radar now. If this is the onset of a second wave, the best countermeasure available – vaccination – must be scaled up immediately.
The current vaccination strategy, despite best intentions, is inoculating less than 2 lakh persons on most days. At this pace, India’s hopes of vaccinating 30 crore persons in priority groups by July look impossible. However, leading lights of India’s private sector like Devi Shetty and Azim Premji have proposed a far more ambitious programme of vaccinating 50 crore people in 30 to 60 days. This will require unleashing India’s private sector energies to solve the problem of scale.
After the Union Budget pushed a strong privatisation agenda, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made spirited arguments indicating how the private sector can act as a force multiplier in solving national problems. He recalled private enterprise successes in telecom and pharma sectors that have improved quality of life for the poor, while pointing out the limitations of babudom. Trusting the private healthcare sector in boosting vaccination – to tackle the most critical problem facing India today – will translate such talk into practice instantly. Based on claimed capacity of 100 vaccinations per session, the 1.86 lakh inoculations on Saturday were achieved at just 26% capacity utilisation. A sense of urgency is clearly missing in these mediocre numbers.
Each day of low capacity utilisation equates to losing precious time against a second wave and complete economic unlocking. While 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 private hospitals and clinics price their offerings in a range that helps them tap the widest possible clientele. High vaccine stocks coupled with ample number of vaccination sites will rule out supply bottlenecks driving up prices, if that is what government fears. High vaccine hesitancy and complacency surrounding Covid are also reasons to take a war footing approach to vaccination. A high decibel campaign to promote vaccination and masking can no longer wait.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.