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The Great Indian Vaccination Drive

How India vaccinates its 1.3 billion people will determine the future of the disease, in many ways, on the planet.

A healthworker in India.

As the Corona virus vaccine seems to be plateauing in India, the immediate task for the government of India is effective dissemination of the vaccine to as many people as possible in as less time as possible.

The issue that has been dominating the political discussion for some time now, is how to handle and distribute new coronavirus treatments. These debates will be more pressing because it now appears that the winter will bring more cases, hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths.

The recent visit to the vaccine development centers by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an excellent gesture, one which is sure to boost the morale of the frontline workers and scientists in India. His visit also signaled that the vaccine development was truly in its last stages and was almost ready to be deployed.

The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved by the UK government and vaccinations have begun. Soon after the Indian arm of the pharmaceutical giant applied for approval for emergency use authorization in India. The very next day the India made COVISHIELD by the Serum Institute did the same which is excellent news for India.

Something to remember is that on vaccine issues, Indian public opinion does not map neatly along a simple left/right axis. There are plenty of vaccine skeptics (and advocates) on both sides of the political spectrum, so neither liberals nor conservatives can expect their usual allies on this issue.

And who should get the vaccine first? The Indian Prime Minister has said that one crore frontline healthcare workers will be the first to receive the vaccine followed by another two hundred million health care workers (). Once that process starts the focus will be on public dissemination. The elderly are, of course, more vulnerable, but the young are more likely to spread COVID-19. Some recent results suggest it would be better to vaccinate the young first, but that is less politically likely. Again, it is easy to see potential conflicts over this question, cutting across traditional party lines.

An even more complex problem would arise if one good vaccine is available but other, possibly better, vaccines are imminent. Does everyone get the ‘good enough’ vaccine, disrupting the ability to conduct clinical trials to see if the other vaccines are better? How much patience does the public have, really? Most people who can afford to pay for the vaccine would probably resent having to wait. But if they end up choosing a lesser quality vaccine, over the long run they might be unhappier yet.

For policymakers this is very tough call, one which will affect how quickly India can recover from the pandemic and even scientifically literate Indians are unlikely to confront this situation with full rationality. Regardless of how this plays out, many ‘experts’ will walk away unhappy.

Almost every election in the country in recent years and almost all the political commentary has been focused on ideological and religious polarization. But soon enough, the biggest conflicts could be over the time-honored issues of life and death. One can only hope that political agendas are kept out of the vaccination process. Both the central and state governments will have to work very hard to make sure this happens.

India has already offered some of its neighbours availability of the vaccine. This entire process has given India the opportunity to yet again prove that it can be a responsible and dependable world leader. India has a rich history of incredible contributions to medicine right from the ancient times and its time for the scientific prowess to be showcased to the world.


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