“INDIA has been successful in saving so many lives, we saved the entire humanity from a big tragedy. India launched the world’s biggest vaccination programme and has inoculated more than 2.3 million healthcare workers in the last 12 days.” So said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January, while addressing the World Economic Forum. Those were relatively better days in India; Covid cases had dropped dramatically, and India seemed to have emerged largely unscathed, a victory that was pinned to the Modi government’s lapel.
Home to the Serum Institute, the much-touted and largest vaccine producer in the world, that manufactures Covishield, as well as the Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech, that makes Covaxin, India set about using the two vaccines as emblems of its emergence as a global power. Instead of purchasing enough vaccines to inoculate its own gargantuan population, it began sending the shots abroad — over 60m. Selling vaccines, it was likely imagined, would propel India even further to the position of a superpower, an image the Modi government projected over its seven years in power and which most Indians had gladly believed.
So it was that India, the would-be superpower, through its vaccine powerhouses began to produce vaccines that would save lives and send them abroad. The economic liberalisation path that the country has been on during the Modi years perhaps required the decision. Why else would private entities be based in India if they hadn’t been assured that the government would support their global efforts?
The BJP also had its own reasons to buy junk science theories about herd immunity that would account for the abandonment of Covid-19 protocols. They had an election to contest in West Bengal and they were throwing millions into vast election rallies. The Kumbh Mela, a religious festival where millions bathed in the Ganges and likely took the virus back to their cities and villages, was similarly necessary to a religio-nationalist party built on the goal of pushing the primacy of Hindu majoritarian identity.
The Covid tragedy raises questions about how India wants to project itself.
The results are all known. Nearly 4,000 casualties a day and a virus spreading like wildfire, honestly even faster. Positivity rates in Delhi run as high as one in three infected, there is no oxygen and the grey ash of constantly burning funeral pyres has enveloped a nation under siege and facing the collapse of the healthcare system.
There are also no vaccines. Given that there were international contractual obligations to fulfil, India soon found itself without vaccines and had to curb its exports. An inoculation drive that was to make the jab available to all Indians over 18 has largely been abandoned for the simple reason that there are no shots available to administer. To add to the mess, the vaccines were priced differently for use in India, with the government at the centre having to pay far less for the two vaccines than the states who have actually been given the task of vaccinating their people. Although the prices have now been lowered for the states, the discrepancy is still unclear. The cost of the vaccine for private hospitals is higher. The fact that millions of Indians who subsist on a few dollars a day would not be able to afford the shots probably does not matter to officialdom.
The two projects of the Modi government — ensuring that Indians see themselves as a global power and projecting India as a global power on the world stage — now stand at cross purposes. Pushing the vaccine makers to grant ‘voluntary licensing’, under which they would waive their intellectual property rights permitting other smaller labs within India to also manufacture the vaccine, might ease the short-term problem of providing vaccines for everyone. However, it would also mean that other private companies investing in scientific or tech innovation would lose faith in India as a reliable place where their companies’ intellectual property rights could be respected.
The choice, then, appears to be between the sort of nationalism that would do whatever it takes to get as many vaccines as possible to vaccinate as many Indians as possible and the sort of nationalism that touts itself as a global power that manufactures and sells vaccines all around the world. At the moment, India appears to have chosen the latter.
However, the Serum Institute of India is producing about 60m to 70m vaccine doses per month and will be able to increase it to 100m by the end of July, and not by the end of the current month as planned. Government officials appearing on television say that vaccine production cannot be increased so rapidly to meet sudden demand. In the meantime, Adar Poonawalla, who heads the Serum Institute, has fled abroad, fed up of taking calls from various politicians, and desperate chief ministers who want vaccines for their constituents.
Government functionaries have demanded that the US lift Trump-era restrictions of the Defence Production Act that they say is obstructing the export of raw material from the US that India needs for its manufacture of vaccines.
After decades of apparent self-sufficiency, India has once again begun to ask for and receive vaccines and other necessary material to handle the national disaster which is the Covid-19 tragedy. Last weekend, Indian television showed large pallets of USAID supplies being unloaded from US cargo planes; they also showed similar pallets of the Sputnik-V vaccine that have been sent over by Russia.
This, then, seems to be the momentary solution to the crisis, allowing Indian television commentators to provide the ‘positive spin’ that nationalism demands. How the crisis of vaccine economics, the twin imperatives of maintaining its reputation as a free market and vaccinating its citizens, will be solved languishes in the ash-filled air of death-darkened cities. The vaccine, all Indians know, is the answer; but the vaccine, just like oxygen cylinders and hospital beds and PPE, seems impossible to procure at the moment.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2021