In his comments at a meeting with chief ministers to discuss Covid-19, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi underlined, rightly so, the need to take precautions which will help prevent the spread of the disease. In recent weeks, a range of factors — the most important of which is the fact that citizens have been reckless in their movement, interaction, and visits to crowded places — have contributed to a spike in Covid-19 cases across states. The fact that India’s health infrastructure is today better equipped to cope with the pandemic, there is an established medical protocol to deal with the disease, and the country has had — for reasons that are still not clear — a low fatality rate is positive. But the PM’s cautionary note is important to save lives and states must strive towards his target — a positivity rate less than five per cent — till the vaccine is ready to be distributed.
And that, indeed, was the other focus of the PM’s speech. He suggested that the government was on top of understanding the stages of vaccine development both domestically and internationally, and was in touch with foreign governments, companies as well as multilateral organisations. He emphasised the commitment to ensure that each citizens receives the vaccine and urged states to come up with comprehensive plans, including cold storage facilities, to ensure its distribution. But the PM also, once again, expressed caution. Vaccines must be scientifically vetted before any final decision is taken; there isn’t clarity on the number of doses that will be required; and there is also an absence of clarity on the costs of the vaccines.
This tentativeness is actually a positive signal. While claiming that it is preparing a vaccine strategy, the government is also clear that it does not have all the answers — yet. Indeed, this has been the most severe challenge to policymaking in times of the pandemic. How do you take appropriate decisions in the absence of full information and a fog of uncertainty? The good news is that with Pfizer (which health minister Harsh Vardhan has suggested may not be appropriate for Indian conditions), Moderna, Oxford-Astrazenaca-Serum Institute, and now Sputnik V showing high rates of efficacy, India will have options. The challenge is to procure, store, prioritise, distribute, and ensure that every Indian is equipped to battle the most disruptive health challenge in recent times.