A day after the Centre opened up Covid vaccination to all above 18 from May 1, Opposition Chief Ministers and some experts raised questions on stocks and pricing given that 50% has been earmarked for the “open market.” Arguing that no other country had done this so far, they said this places a financial burden on the states.
While BJP state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Assam both announced free vaccines for all, other states said the Centre was washing its hands of the responsibility.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reminded the Prime Minister that she had, in a letter to him in February, requested his intervention to allow West Bengal to purchase vaccines directly with state resources and give free vaccination to people of the state.
“No response was received from your end. Now when the number of cases in the second wave is spiralling like anything, the Centre has chosen to tactically indulge in empty rhetoric and shy away from its responsibility for making available vaccines to the people of the country,” Banerjee wrote.
“It is apprehended that the announced policy might lead to unscrupulous mechanisms in the market, including pricing of vaccines as it appears to be based on market prices which may put the common people under huge financial burden,” she said.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to the PM welcoming the move to expand the beneficiaries but underlined that given the ongoing economic distress, “the additional burden of purchasing Covid vaccines will place considerable strain on state finances.”
Urging the Centre to rethink, Vijayan said: “State governments…do need an assured quota of Covid 19 vaccine which has to be provided free in the pandemic situation. It is imperative that vaccines are provided to the States as a public good, free of cost.”
“Instead of having a Government of India channel, we need to have a Government channel which will include the State governments through whom the vaccine will be distributed,” he said. Vijayan said open market distributors may be permitted to have a specified quota of vaccine for which affordable price has to be fixed so that “unscrupulous players” do not exploit the public.
Although the policy states that the Centre will provide vaccine free of cost to state governments from its 50% quota based on criteria, Vijayan said the state needs a reassurance that they will not be left to compete with open-market players.
Echoing this Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot told The Indian Express: “This new policy is wrong. The Centre should not burden the state governments. What they should have done is that they should give vaccines free of cost to all age groups in government hospitals and allow 25% supply of vaccines to private nursing homes and hospitals where those who can afford can go and get themselves vaccinated.”
Chhattisgarh Health Minister T S Singh Deo said the decentralisation of purchase of vaccines was “completely wrong and short-sighted” and demanded a rollback.
The Maharashtra Government urged the Centre to allow it to import Covid vaccines from the international market. The state government would ask the Centre for permission to import its choice of vaccines like AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sputnik, state minister Jitendra Awhad said.
The Opposition Congress criticised some aspects of the new policy. “In a country where the median age is 28 years, to leave those who are below the age of 45 years out of a public-funded programme is, to say the least, callous,” senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said.
“…The Union Government is running away from taking responsibility, overburdens the states, encourages vaccine manufacturers to profiteer, and will worsen the inequality between states as well between poor and rich Indians. Nowhere in the world has any government left its vaccination programme to be determined by the vagaries of market forces, and for good reason,” he said.
“No other country is doing this (putting vaccines in the open market) as yet, because all these vaccines are still under restricted or emergency use permissions and have not yet been fully licensed in their countries of origin, except perhaps in Russia,” said vaccine expert and Christian Medical College professor Gagandeep Kang.
“As more vaccines are permitted entry into India or are produced in India, the supply chain will expand. This may happen by the end of June,” said Public Health Foundation of India President K Srinath Reddy.
“Since the Centre will provide free vaccinations only to persons above 45, state governments must provide free vaccinations to all younger adults from low-income families. Migrant workers and their families should receive free vaccinations in whichever state they are located, without domicile requirements,” he added.