The India Cable: New Vaccine Policy Still a Shot in the Dark; India’s Press Freedom Ranking Still ‘Bad’

Plus: Migrant exodus from Delhi begins, UK, Pak ban travel from India, Allahabad HC tears into Yogi government for pandemic mismanagement, Mani Kaul’s film holds lessons for US filmmakers

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
April 20, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India’s total tally of Covid-19 cases crossed 15.3 million with a single-day rise of 259,170 new infections, while active cases surpassed the 2 million mark, according to Union Health Ministry data. The death toll increased to 180,530 with a record 1,761 daily new fatalities. The Washington Post reports that India’s devastating outbreak is driving the global coronavirus surge and those on the country’s frontlines say it’s worse than anything seen before. Reuters highlights that non-stop cremations cast doubt on India’s counting of the Covid dead. The Guardian has an explainer about the Indian coronavirus variant. BBC reports on Uttar Pradesh, with a population larger than Brazil: “Wherever you look, you see ambulances and bodies”.

Perhaps the Centre has finally understood that it is controlling the nation to death ― people aged 18 and above will get access to vaccines on May 1, and half of supplies will be earmarked for the open market. But the licence-permit vaccine raj isn’t over yet, for a very significant component of the population remains excluded ― school students. They cannot return to regular schooling without their shots. The Pfizer vaccine has been tested on children down to the age of 12 for the US vaccination programme, but in India, children aren’t even a subject of discussion, though they are falling sick in large numbers in the second wave. 

Following the cancellation of Boris Johnson’s visit, India has become the 40th country on the UK’s coronavirus ‘red list’ of nations from which most travel to the UK is banned, for fear of letting in a new Covid-19 variant. So far, 103 instances of the ‘double mutant’ Indian variant have been recorded. But the England Cricket Board is confident they will be able to fulfil their home international fixture programme this summer. Pakistan has also decided to ban travellers from India for two weeks.

Both living former prime ministers have Covid-19. Dr Manmohan Singh has tested positive and is admitted at the Trauma Centre at AIIMS. HD Deve Gowda had tested positive on April 1. Both  of India’s election commissioners (including newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra) have tested positive. The third might have too but the government has yet to name anyone for the slot. Also positive is Telangana Chief Minister K Chandashekhar Rao. Two of the most populous states in India — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — have reached infection rates nearly one and a half times higher than the national R value of 1.31.

The families of only 168 doctors, out of at least 756 who died on Covid-19 duty in India – that’s one in five – have benefitted from the Rs 50 lakh insurance coverage provided by the Modi government so far, according to the Indian Medical Association, as the scheme was wound up on March 24 and an extension was hastily announced through “sources”. The Modi government has told Parliament that it does not have data on care workers who died on Covid-19 duty.

Hours after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a week-long lockdown, thousands of migrant workers thronged Anand Vihar bus terminal, the capital’s gateway to the east. Kejriwal had appealed to them not to leave Delhi, assured them that the lockdown would not be extended, and had said: “Main hoon na” (I am here for you). But the callousness of the state last year has caused a massive withdrawal of faith among migrant workers. 

Pictures of Anand Vihar on the night the 2020 lockdown began are exactly like the pictures from last night.

After deaths due to poor oxygen flow in Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh, seven patients in the Covid ward and other critical care wards in Government Vellore Medical College Hospital at Adukkamparai in Vellore district, died due to glitches in oxygen supply, though the authorities claimed otherwise. The actual number of Covid-19 cases in Telangana could be twice the declared figure. The number of cases reported by district-level health officials is being drastically slashed before data is shared with the media.

BofA Securities has forecast 34%, 40% and 48% of India’s population getting vaccinated by 2021 in bear, middle and bull scenarios respectively. The Finance Ministry has (finally) approved funds for Indian vaccine manufacturers to scale up, though epidemiologists have known since at least last August that India would need upwards of 2 billion doses. Johnson & Johnson has applied to India’s drug regulator seeking permission to conduct phase 3 clinical trials of its single-dose Covid-19 vaccine in India, as well as an import licence.

The Mahakumbh fiasco in Haridwar continues, and the Char Dham Yatra to the holy shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri will begin on May 14. A cautious Uttarakhand government has made negative RT-PCR test reports mandatory, among other guidelines, as for the Mahakumbh. We all know the outcome.

Apart from the hordes of seers who are testing positive in Haridwar (150 at the last count), 39 staffers and students at Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali institutions have Covid. Coronil did not cure them, though the product was originally flogged as a cure in India and overseas. 


“Economy, economy, economy!” UP HC lambasts Yogi govt on Covid

“Those in the helm of affairs of governance are to be blamed for the present chaotic health problems… if people die of pandemic in a large number due to paucity of sufficient medical aid it would be the governments to blame which failed to counter the pandemic even after one long year of experience and learning.” Yesterday, the Allahabad High Court lambasted the BJP state government in Uttar Pradesh for its failure to provide medical facilities to the Covid-infected and going ahead with the panchayat polls. It also ordered a lockdown in the five worst-affected cities ― Lucknow, Varanasi, Kanpur, Prayagraj and Gorakhpur ― from Monday night to April 26. Reacting to the order, UP’s Additional Chief Secretary (Information) Navneet Sehgal said that “there will be no complete lockdown in the cities for now”. The state has moved the Supreme Court against the HC order, which promptly granted a stay.

The high court also trashed the state government’s declaration that a lockdown would have an adverse impact on the economy. “Economy, economy and economy is the only tune that the government is all the time harping upon, but if you take bread and butter to a person who needs oxygen and medication, it will be of no use to him,” it said.


India’s media freedom ranking remains ‘bad’

RSF’s annual media freedom ranking for 2021 has India stuck at 142 but don’t let the fact that it has not slipped further down fool you. Sample this from what the report says about India this year:

“While the pro-government media pump out a form of propaganda, journalists who dare to criticise the government are branded as “anti-state,” “anti-national” or even “pro-terrorist” by supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This exposes them to public condemnation in the form of extremely violent social media hate campaigns that include calls for them to be killed, especially if they are women. When out reporting in the field, they are physically attacked by BJP activists, often with the complicity of the police. And finally, they are also subjected to criminal prosecutions.”

Say it ain’t so.


Thrissur Pooram, but without people

Millions will continue to attend the Mahakumbh in Haridwar, but in Kerala, the Thrissur Pooram will be held without people. While the state government was in two minds till yesterday, the final call is that only organisers will be allowed at the venue. A meeting of Devaswom representatives and government officials convened by the chief secretary took the decision. People will not be allowed the Swaraj Round on Pooram day, and there will be one representative firework, and one elephant. Thousands throng Thrissur on this important day, but temple officials and the government, working together, will now show how to manage faith in a pandemic year. Is Uttar Pradesh listening?


Two-track vaccine policy has problems

Under pressure from the public over its gross mismanagement of the pandemic, and for focusing on state elections while ignoring the suffering of the people, the Modi government finally announced a new vaccination policy, with a PIB press release that had no subject line but multiple headlines for newspapers, tickers for TV news channels and WhatsAppable sentences. Everyone above the age of 18 years would be eligible to get the jab from May 1 and the new policy allows vaccine manufacturers to release up to 50% of their supply to the state governments and in the open market at a price they must pre-declare but which they are free to set. All imported vaccines will be available for the open market and will not be reserved by the Centre. Meanwhile, the central government’s vaccination drive will continue as before, providing free vaccination for essential and priority populations as defined earlier, for healthcare workers, frontline workers and the general population above 45 years of age.

Two simple questions about this new announcement: where are the vaccines for states to buy? Why the inequity in policy that favours the rich? To understand the problem, see this Twitter thread. Or try this critique by Ashok Malik, a politically appointed advisor in the Foreign Ministry and his eventual endorsement of a ra-ra tweet on the new policy. And then there is Yes Minister.


SC refuses to insist on paper audit of votes 

The Supreme Court has dismissed a plea seeking 100% matching of the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips with the electronic voting machines (EVMs) vote count in the elections. “We are not going to interfere in the middle of the election process,” a bench comprising Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said. The Supreme Court may not have the time to hear petitions on electoral bonds or Article 370, or intervene in elections, but it definitely had the time and the willingness to seek responses to a plea alleging adulteration of honey being sold in Indian markets with Chinese sugar.


The Long Cable

Shot in the dark: Vaccine policy remains somewhat opaque   

MK Venu

Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended up doing just what the doctor had ordered (pun intended). Dr Manmohan Singh wrote to the PM seeking transparency in the mass vaccination programme, hitherto nonexistent, by publicly declaring the quantum of vaccines the government would purchase over the next six months and the manner in which it would be allocated to states. The government, after some slighting references to Manmohan Singh, announced a big production scale-up to vaccinate the entire population above 18 years from May 1. 

Manmohan Singh made a simple, commonsensical suggestion which the US and the EU have followed ― to clearly spell out the targeted population numbers to be vaccinated via firm pre-orders, so that vaccine producers can scale up capacity accordingly. This simple idea eluded the Modi government when it launched its vaccination programme early in January with a pathetically small order of 11 million vials for a population of 1.3 billion! By mid-January, both Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India had asked the government for adequate resources to expand vaccine production capacity, since the Centre was a monopoly buyer. There was no response. 

Only now, amidst a devastating second wave, with the health system facing collapse, has the Finance Minister announced an advance payment of Rs 3,000 crore to Serum Institute and Rs 1,500 crore to Bharat Biotech to expand their production capacities to 120 million and 50  million vaccines per month respectively. Currently Serum Institute has the capacity to produce 60 million Covishield doses a month, and Bharat Biotech can make about 5 million doses of Covaxin per month. 

Lulled into complacency by the belief that India had escaped the worst of Covid-19, the PMO missed the four-month window in November-February to clearly spell out its mass vaccination policy as many other countries have done. An obsessive Prime Minister seemed bent on controlling the vaccination programme at every step. An RTI reply received by activist Saket Gokhale shows how PMCARES, a private trust, had procured vaccines. What exactly was the vaccine policy pursued by the Prime Minister? How did a private trust get involved in buying vaccines when the government was supposed to be the sole buyer? Questions abound.

Manmohan Singh’s demand for transparency in policy must be seen in this light. Even now, many questions remain unanswered in regard to how the vaccination policy will play out over the next six months. The Centre says it will let states and the private sector buy directly and distribute 50% of the vaccine capacity. The Centre will buy 50% at Rs 150, the present price. Will the states have to pay a higher price and if so, why should they have to? Where will they get resources from? Ideally, since vaccination is a national programme, the states should get the benefit of the Rs 35,000 crore central budget for vaccination, but clarity is required. Vaccine producers will also get to charge a higher price for distribution via the private sector. The price paid by the government for Covisheld and Covaxin apparently does not cover the production cost even after taking the volumes into account. Some cross subsidisation is inevitable. The poor will have to be vaccinated free of cost. 

Also, how can Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech scale up capacity in time for the May 1 deadline? If capacity expansion takes, say, three months, how will the interim supply gap be met? Perhaps the government is tying up bulk imports of Sputnik V from Russia? Pricing would be a question there, too. India may need 10-15 million vaccinations a day if it wants to cover most of its population over the next six months. It is now clear this is the only way to reduce stress on an already creaky healthcare system, as fresh variants of the virus attack. 

Until recently, government policy did not emphatically stress mass vaccination as the primary tool to counter the devastating effects of Covid-19 on lives and livelihood. The current surge engulfing the country has helped the government make up its mind on vaccination as the main weapon to reduce the stress on the health system and the economy. If this is recognised, then some other key decisions need to be taken to scale up vaccine production quickly. Manmohan Singh has suggested invoking the compulsory licensing clause in Indian patent law to have multiple entities producing vaccines under a universal license. India won global acclaim by globally distributing AIDS drugs via compulsory licensing. A start can be made by letting Covaxin be produced by multiple entities so that its market share can match that of Covishield’s. Currently, Covishield has 90% plus market share. 

The CPI(M) has suggested the use of multiple public sector vaccine-making facilities, lying under-utilised, to be used for scaling up under compulsory licensing. All these ideas need to be explored to fight the aggressive Covid-19 mutant varieties on a war footing. 


Reportedly

The Election Commission has mastered the art of being in the news for the wrong reasons. A polling officer was relieved of his duties this weekend in West Bengal after he clicked a selfie with a celebrity voter, actress turned Trinamool Congress MP Mimi Chakraborty. The Jadavpur MP and a voter of Jalpaiguri reached the booth to cast her vote, and was heard saying “Amaro chakri jabe, apnaro (I will lose my job, and so will you),” when she saw the government employee advancing with his cell phone. He was initially hesitant, but when Chakraborty walked out of the booth after casting her vote, he could not contain himself. He left his desk again and this time took a selfie with the actress. 


Prime Number: 7x
India lost seven times more doctors than soldiers in the line of duty in 2020 by one estimate. This also means that 10 lakh patients have been left without medical attention. This, too, is a comment on the dreadful doctor-patient ratio in India.  

Deep Dive

After damning new revelations in a three-part series by French investigative journalists at Mediapart, the controversial Rafale deal is not going to be buried anytime soon. It will permanently tarnish not only those in the government but also those mandated to hold the government accountable. Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) explains the importance of the new information, which is explosive.


Op Eds you don’t want to miss

  • How the world sees India is changing under the Modi government, says Aakar Patel, and it is not for the better

  • Ulka Kelkar is Director of the climate programme at the World Resources Institute, India. She is an economist and leads WRI India’s work on climate policy which aims to support India’s pathway to a climate-resilient low-carbon economy. Here she talks about ‘net zero’ and why it matters.

  • Ordinances exist to tackle exigencies when the legislature is not in session, and expire at the end of six weeks of the next meeting of the legislature. The government is violating this principle, and legislatures and the courts should check the practice. By not doing so, the other two organs are also abdicating their responsibility to the Constitution, writes MR Madhavan.


Listen Up

Rahul Rao, scholar and author of Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality, in conversation with writer Kavya Murthy talks about the inheritance that the former colonies are living with and how they have managed to warp and expand imperialist biases and criminalisation of the queer community. 


Watch Out

Understanding ‘India and Asian Geopolitics’ with Shivshankar Menon, as the former NSA discusses his book which offers a sweeping survey of India’s strategic history as part of the larger Asian geopolitical narrative. 


Over and Out

The fishing cat is one of India’s most enigmatic predators, hunting the waterways of its remaining wetlands and swamps. Read here on the efforts to save it, which may also help save a vital buffer against climate change. 

The New Yorker has an article on Duvidha, Mani Kaul’s 1973 film about a newlywed couple, and says it showcases the cinematic freedom that can come from working hands-on with scant means. Richard Brody says it “contains lessons for American directors.”

And this short Hindi poem about the man who shall not be named for India’s Covid disaster, but who is easily identified, has gone viral.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.