By Ashwajit Singh,
India is witnessing a sharp surge in Covid-19 cases with nearly 400,000 active cases in India. What is worrying is that this spike comes at a time when vaccine options are available and a high number of doses are being administered daily. No doubt, this is not enough. Distribution hurdles coupled with vaccine supply and demand challenges can derail the country’s ambitious target of vaccinating 250 million people with two doses by the end of July 2021 (or 3.65 million shots per day for the remaining days).
The government is facing a challenge on three fronts- to have a robust demand; to ensure a continuous supply of vaccine and, to have a well-spread robust vaccine distribution channel.
Demand for vaccines has been primarily affected due to fear factor and vaccine hesitancy. With practically zero waiting period for inoculation, it is no surprise that there are reports of a near 7% vaccine wastage as per health ministry. Despite several government assurances and commitments by Bharat Biotech and SII to supply enough doses per month, so far just about 2.3% have been given the first dose and nearly 0.5% given both the doses as on March 18, 2021. At this rate, India will take 10.8 years to administer both doses to 70% of its population to attain herd immunity. Though, as the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer, India may have better access to vaccines than many other parts of the developing world, yet vaccine distribution remains a daunting task.
So, what is really required is a higher private sector engagement which can give the much-needed booster shot to help ease the supply-demand-distribution challenge…
Easing out the current vaccine eligibility criteria can ramp up demand. A collected and coordinated behaviour change approach through information campaigns can increase vaccine acceptance and uptake. Easing the restrictions could mean a return of work force and increased productivity. This could especially benefit the contact-intensive services sector (esp. sub-sectors like tourism, hospitality and, aviation) that have witnessed a contraction of almost 16% in the first half of 2020-21 on year-on-year basis.
With emphasis on social benefits of vaccination, effective communication strategy by corporates can further up the vaccine drive. Leveraging on the follower base of several influencers and celebrities who often endorse a product/company can motivate further, send out a positive message among employees and their families thus help bust any prevailing myths around the vaccine. A case in point here is the country’s successful polio eradication mission. The state of Uttar Pradesh alone had nearly 65% of global polio cases in 2002 with a high vaccine hesitancy. UNICEF aggressive engagement with social mobilisers and celebrities greatly helped mitigate this fear.
Formal tie ups with health centres/labs; assurance to cover vaccine costs for both the employees (and possibly families) eligible for the jab; provision of Covid-19 testing facility within the premises by corporates can also push vaccine demand.
With recent reports of vaccine crunch in states like Karnataka, Bengaluru and Odisha, we cannot afford an immunization halt. With an expected increased demand, the supply will have to scaled up. Improved production capacity, fast track approvals, alternative vaccine options (like Moderna, Pfizer, Sputnik V etc.), a relook at international commitments over domestic priorities could help. With increased doses available, corporates may be able to buy vaccines for employees without having to really worry about shortage and vaccine phases.
Without doubt vaccines need to be available to an overwhelming majority to overcome the issues of inequality and exclusion. However, much of the supply side issues cannot be often solved alone. A participative and collaborative public-private partnership can be a win-win for all. For instance, an estimated one lakh inoculators are required for the vaccination drive. The private sector can fit in well here to meet the manpower resource gap that often exists the public sector.
A government – corporate partnership can also help address vaccine distribution challenges. Besides facilitating a ramp up of the existing cold chain infrastructure in the country, corporates can help create new vaccination sites, mobilise workers/volunteers for the drive and leverage on technology like blockchain and IoT to ensure a smooth last mile delivery.
The government on its part has also inspired corporates by allowing India Inc. to spend CSR funds for Covid-19 vaccination, research & development, awareness campaigns etc. Estimates indicate that FY2021 CSR spend will be largely dominated with spends around Covid-19. Corporate sector has stepped up to the call. Just like World War-II when automakers shifted to making planes and tanks, the crisis has pushed several global giants like Apple, Ford & Dyson to re-engineer their production lines to innovate and make masks, ventilators and sanitisers etc.
With the return of conversation around lockdown and night curfews, India needs to go into an overdrive. The recent announcement by government to allow all those who are 45 or above from April 1st is step in this direction. Globally there is evidence that vaccines help. Infections in US, UK and Israel are reduced considerably. This is not the time to engage in a vaccine diplomacy battle or one-upmanship. Time is critical because the quicker we vaccinate, the earlier we can achieve herd immunity, with a lower risk of new strains.
(The author is Managing Director, IPE Global (international development consulting firm). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)