How expensive is India’s vaccine diplomacy?

India is one of the worst affected countries in terms of the number of detected COVID-19 cases and suspected undetected cases whose number far outweigh the former according to reported sero-surveillance studies. India needs to vaccinate atleast a minimum of 700 million people to achieve herd immunity. At the same time, the director of AIIMS Dr. Randeep Guleria has recently warned that “herd immunity is very difficult to achieve and one should not think of it in practical terms in India, especially in the time of variant strains of COVID-19 and waning immunity.” Therefore, it is imperative that every vaccine produced in the country must quickly reach the people who need it. Quite rightly, the authorities have drawn up an ambitious programme that includes the inoculation of nearly 30 million health care workers and service personnel in the first phase and another 270 million of the identified population in the second phase by June 2021.

India’s vaccine diplomacy rests on being able to earn goodwill by providing the vaccine in grant. However, does India have any other instruments to influence neighbours in the form of loans, grants and military equipment? Or not?

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity the “best asset in the world.” India’s current vaccine production capacities are entirely on account of the private sector pharma companies which are able to produce high quality vaccines on a large scale and at a very reasonable cost. This fits the expectation of those who believe in a bigger private sector role in shaping India’s future. The Prime Minister also recently acknowledged the role of the private sector in India’s growth, national progress and enhancing the country’s prestige. Affected somewhat, is the more than half-century old narrative on the role of the public sector in India.

This brings us to the tricky issue of vaccine diplomacy recently undertaken by India. As per a statement made by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, India has already supplied COVID-19 vaccines to 15 countries and another 25 nations are in the queue at different levels for the jab. India’s vaccine diplomacy rests on being able to earn goodwill by providing the vaccine in grant. However, does India have any other instruments to influence neighbours in the form of loans, grants and military equipment? Or not?

Our teaching and academic fraternity need to devise condensed curricula so that learners can catch up as done by countries like Liberia, Mozambique and the Philippines.

And in a bid to do vaccine diplomacy, are we forgetting our own citizens? The pace at which the inoculation drive is progressing within the country makes one wonder whether we can vaccinate 300 million people even within two years! In a recent article published by a leading business newspaper, noted industrialist Naushad Forbes has calculated that it may take 17 years to cover the whole of India if the current glacial speed is not up-scaled considerably! By donating vaccines to other countries while ignoring Indians, the authorities also risk failure in discharging their constitutional obligation. Further, delaying the vaccination to vulnerable Indians could only mean more illness and death and its knock-on effect on the country’s fragile economic revival.    

The government has allowed commercial exports to countries seeking them, while placing an embargo on the commercial sale of vaccines in India. This policy requires an urgent review. There are millions of our countrymen who can happily bear the cost of two doses of the jab. And for this to happen, the government must involve the private sector in a big way in distribution and administration of vaccines among people and corporate houses who are eagerly waiting to be allowed this change in stance. This can be supported by doing appropriate changes to the Co-Win app for the purpose of reporting and keeping track of the progress achieved. Remember that commercial export of vaccines to some of the countries is taking place at the price that the Indian government pays to the vaccine makers.

The Reopening Challenge

This uncovers another significant issue: that of reopening of private residential professional institutions. It must be noted that the reopening of schools without any rejigging can create more stressful situations. If we have to reopen schools with the observance of Standard Operating Procedures, as advised by the government, more teachers need to be hired, more classroom space is required, smaller in-person classes, staggered school days, breaks and classes in shifts or reorganised groups using blended learning. Sadly, the country lacks the required resources to support this approach. While we cannot time travel to the gurukul system of education in ancient India, we can probably explore utilising stadia, sports complexes, marriage halls, disaster relief camps in coastal states and any other community premises for imparting education to ensure safe distancing beyond physical school spaces.

No parent would agree to a “zero” academic year as it involves considerable financing commitments. If these students can return to their campuses by mid-March, with some changes in their summer holidays schedule, they can largely make good the academic loss suffered during the last ten months.

Meanwhile, our teaching and academic fraternity need to devise condensed curricula so that learners can catch up as done by countries like Liberia, Mozambique and the Philippines. Interestingly, a recent study conducted by the Azim Premji University has revealed that almost 90 percent of the respondents (parents) are willing to send their children to school if the health of their children is taken care of when schools reopen.

Another important question that needs attention is whether we can allow our school going children to come face to face with a new setting, new procedures that COVID-19 may bring about and a different grade in a different classroom with different teachers and classmates, should schools decide to allow children to be promoted to the next grade at the end of the academic session. Besides, allowing a roll over to the next grade without the normal pedagogic rigor could endanger the future of a new generation. So, alternatively, the academic year 2020-21 could be treated as a “zero” academic year with a pre-decided concession in age criterion for COVID stamped students for the purpose of government employment in future.

The Future Stake

This brings us to consider and decide the fate of students undergoing professional courses, mainly housed in fully residential facilities in both the public and the private sector. No parent would agree to a “zero” academic year as it involves considerable financing commitments. If these students can return to their campuses by mid-March, with some changes in their summer holidays schedule, they can largely make good the academic loss suffered during the last ten months.

Fortunately, Covaxin and Covishield, the vaccines approved by India for emergency use can be administered to children above the age of 12 and 18, respectively. The issue that needs reconsideration at this stage is whether we can tweak our jabbing priority to accommodate this lot whose number may not exceed ten million, including the faculty and other support staff, on a payment basis. Countries like Singapore have prioritised the return of graduating students to school to focus on preparing for national exams. Our adolescents are hugely missing peer relationships and friendships impacting their mental health and wellbeing leading to increased anxiety and feelings of isolation.  India’s future is precariously perched on the shoulders of these impressionable minds.

(The writer is a former Chief General Manager of the Reserve Bank of India)