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Modi’s address on vaccination is better news for India but appears driven by theatrics

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Monday appears to have sketched the path for course correction with respect to the country’s fight against Covid-19 pandemic. Some of its major highlights including centralizing the vaccine procurement, free vaccines for all and free food grains for over 800 million poor citizens till Diwali are significant and welcome steps. But not only have these decisive steps are too little and too late, they also come without an acknowledgement of the Centre’s flawed policies and indecisiveness in exacerbating the impact of the second wave of the pandemic across the country. While the nation is yet to recover from the shock of being caught in the grip of a virus with poor health infrastructure, shortage of medical oxygen, ventilators and the chaos of overfilled cemeteries and cremation grounds, not to speak of the abandoned bodies, Modi’s cautious attempt to skirt the haunting images and stories without an acknowledgement of the grim and distressing situation, much less offer an apology, amounts to shirking responsibility. On the contrary, he boasted of major efforts that were made by his government even as he completely invisibilised himself when the crisis touched its peak. The remark that the Covid crisis and the demand for oxygen was unprecedented are only half the truth as it does not take into account the lack of preparedness in the face of timely warnings by experts of a second and deadlier Coronavirus wave. Yet, if there is an attempt to make amends now, there is much more than needs be done. Mere announcements are no substitute of a timeline and roadmap for immunizing a population of 1.39 billion. Free vaccines form a core of the vaccine universalization program and is something that most democratic countries are already doing and should not be sold as a novelty. The government instead should think of ways in which hurdles to access can be removed by delinking the vaccination program from both digital registration and private enterprise in a country of many disparities. Modi has done well to remind the conscious citizens about spreading awareness but he must also walk the talk himself by strictly reining in quacks like Patanjali’s Ramdev, who denigrated doctors and medical science, and his own party men promoting ‘gobar’ science as an antidote to Covid-19. The decision to bring vaccine procurement under Centre is a step in the right direction in keeping with the tradition of centralized immunization schemes for ensuring equitable distribution, but the prime minister must also ensure that a steady supply is maintained to all the states without politicising it. Though something that is not entirely of his own making, but a result of accumulated mess of seven decades, his government must also contemplate serious steps to address the gap between the public and the private health sector, as well as urban and rural health sector. Even as assumptions are being made of leveling of the second wave peak, speculations that the Covid crisis may have quietly shifted base from the urban to the rural areas where people hardly have access to healthcare cannot be ignored. Another welcome announcement has been the distribution of free rations to 800 poor people till Diwali but his government cannot absolve itself of its shortsightedness about job layoffs due to the Covid crisis and lockdown and the consequent issue of hunger, despite the ugly example of last year. Was the address high on drama and low on substance? The fact that the vaccine drive, announced by the prime minister has been pushed by a fortnight to coincide with International Day of Yoga betrays that theatrics is taking precedence over pragmatism.