India's prime minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE
India's prime minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced free shots for all adults in an address to the nation, a move prompted by criticism of his administration’s handling of India’s deadly second virus wave and a botched vaccination rollout.

In a half hour-long address on national television, Modi said all Indians above the age 18 will be vaccinated free starting June 21, vowing to speed up the inoculation drive. His administration will also procure the shots for the states, reversing an earlier policy of asking the provinces to compete for supplies for certain age categories.

Modi’s speech came against the backdrop of a near breakdown in health infrastructure over the past two months, with big Indian cities running out of oxygen and hospitals flooded with patients as crematoriums struggled to keep pace with the number of those who died from Covid-19. His government’s ratings have fallen from 75% in 2019 to 51% this year, according to the LocalCircles polling company survey released on May 29, in one of the first indications that Modi’s enduring popularity with voters may be fading.

The South Asian nation faces the challenge of vaccinating its large adult population as it emerges from a devastating second virus wave, with a critical shortage of inoculations leading centres to close down as the country struggled to ramp up domestic production and procure doses internationally. The country’s top court criticised the government’s vaccine policy as “arbitrary and irrational”.

The move to centralise vaccine procurement will come as a relief to Indian states that are strapped for funds. In April the federal government suddenly made provinces responsible for inoculating adults and since they had not budgeted for the shots, they were staring at a huge additional expense, estimated at $5bn-$7bn.

It is a good step, however, continuing with a 25% quota for paid vaccines through private hospitals remains inequitable, said Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “What worries me about this is the underlying philosophy of the government, which seems to treat vaccines as a private commodity, which no other country in the world is doing.”

The South Asian nation has administrated 232-million doses since the start of the world’s biggest vaccination drive that began on January 16, with 3.4% now fully immunised. At this pace, it will take another 22 months to cover 75% of the population, according to Bloomberg Vaccination Tracker.

While the federal government gives free vaccines to those over 45 and front-line workers, state governments and private hospitals have until now been left to inoculate people from 18-45 for a fee.

The government has said more than 2-billion doses will be available by December — enough to vaccinate the adult population — but there is no indication the main vaccine manufacturers in India will be able to ramp up production to meet that goal, nor whether India will be able to purchase doses from overseas to make up the shortfall.

This move shows it is taking steps to correct its immunisation policy, said Chandrakant Lahariya, a New Delhi-based epidemiologist and expert on public policy and health systems. “However it doesn’t address the issue of supply — the other part of the vaccination drive.”

Modi last addressed the nation on April 20, when he urged states to avoid lockdowns even as the country was heading towards record daily infections of more than 414,000. Soaring new cases and a spike in daily deaths forced both India’s financial and political capitals to impose restrictions on movement, as citizens took to social media in a desperate search for oxygen and life-saving medicines.

The wave has been steadily declining since the peak on May 7, and New Delhi and Mumbai began to ease their lockdowns on Monday as India reported 100,636 new infections and 2,427 deaths.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

subscribe

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.