The Great Indian Vaccination Drama

A few days back the front-page headline of a leading Indian daily screamed “India overtakes US in total jabs given, now world No.2″.   Indeed, there are very few areas where we may claim to be ahead of the “world’s largest democracy” with whom India shares that description by virtue of her population.  Here was one such rare achievement that made me truly proud as an Indian.

As a first impulse I reached for my cell phone to capture a snap of the story to share it with friends in various WhatsApp groups, especially with those who are incorrigibly sceptical and cynical about anything good that India does.  ‘This is a sterling example of what we could do, if we only had the will’, I thought. 

My elation was short-lived.  As I studied the colourful bar charts accompanying the story, my nationalistic upsurge got more subdued.  The figures were quite revealing.   At 32.3 crores, the US had already vaccinated 45.8% of its population.  At 32.8 crores we manged to inoculate only 4.1% of our population.   Also, in terms of doses per 100 population, the US scored at 96.7, whereas India’s was just above 23.  My balloon of nationalism got badly punctured by these figures.

All these are still at the macro level. The situation on the ground is quite different from what the advertisements – both by the Centre and the State Government of Delhi – pronounce.  I know, because I have been trying for the last one week, without any success, to book a slot for my wife’s second dose of the vaccine. 

The first dose was easy as a breeze at one of the private centres on payment of Rs.250 – the cost of the vaccine fixed by the Government at that point in time. The second dose fell due after 28 days, but by then various stories were floating in the media indicating that the more one delayed the second dose, the better would be the immunity. 

It was apparent that those were meant just to camouflage the scarcity of vaccines, rather than any big concern for the health of the recipients of the shots.  But women would be women! For them the husbands are but idiots, and all the mushrooming ‘experts’ on the TV channels are demi-gods. My wife, being a woman, was no different and decided to delay her second dose.

As expected, and correctly predicted by me, it did not take more than four days for the government to ‘accept’ the ‘scientific advice’ and increase the gap between the two doses from four to six weeks earlier, to an incredible 12 to 16 weeks! 

In the meanwhile, under pressure from the Supreme Court the government decided to vaccinate all citizens for free, but kept a window open for the private entities to provide the service to those who could afford, at a price four times that we had paid earlier!

Who knew that the ‘window’ would soon become the main door, and the “free vaccination” would be a synonym for harassment?  In due course my wife got a message that her second dose would be due on such and such date and that she should get her shot by arranging a slot at any available centre through the CoWin portal. 

As a greater number of doses of the vaccines became available, at least according to news reports, we hoped getting a shot won’t be a big issue.  The government also started telling us that ‘walk-in’ facility was available at all government and private vaccination centres.  It indeed was; but only on paper so far as the government centres were concerned.

At the centres we visited in the last one week, “local” rules and regulations were in force for those who would walk in without an appointment.  Some said that only the first 15 such persons would be given the shots, whereas others said that one must ‘register’ one’s name a day in advance for availing the ‘walk-in’ facility. 

The obvious question was if one must register in advance  then what was the meaning of a “walk-in facility”? To that the lady at the centre said,  “that’s the order from above”. “From above” could very well mean from the Almighty Himself.  Who would dare dispute His order?

It is not that we did not try the Cowin website to book a slot.  In that we have been even more diligent than we were in our studies.  From morning till evening – almost every hour I would sit with my laptop and my wife’s cell phone to try and see if an appointment could actually be booked at any nearby centre. 

Alas! It seemed that the slots were being updated exactly in-between my log-ins.  There are plenty of private centres with slots available, but the government centres appeared and vanished like a flash of lightning.  If one tried at say, 3 p.m. it would show ‘no centre is available’; but at 4 p.m. it would show “35 slots – booked”!

The ‘app’ says that the slots are updated four times a day at specified hours.  I thought this would help me book a slot at the centre of our choice. However, from 8 o’clock in the morning till 8 o’clock in the evening, and even at 9 o’clock there was not even any mention of our centre in the system.  Surprisingly, next morning at 8 o’clock it showed that all slots at that centre were booked.  When did people book them – between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.?

What a system, Sir ji!

Chaotic condition – Dwarka Sec 23 CGHS Vaccination Centre

The reader may wonder at my going though all these hassles when hundreds of shots were freely available at the private centres.  That’s exactly my question too; only put in a different way:  “how is it that private centres are able to procure hundreds of doses – to be sold at four times the price we had paid earlier, whereas the government centres are getting only trickles?”

It is on principle that I have been trying to get the “free” vaccine; not due to any pecuniary problem.  The Government’s intention is clearly to force people like us to get their jabs from private players.   That is unfair in the extreme. Eventually I may also have to “fall in line” and go for the paid shot; but under protest. 

Readers would recall that in the good old days – when the country’s GDP was way below what it is today – the municipal workers would visit every household to vaccinate us against smallpox.  Did we have to pay for that?  The same is true for the drive against polio.  Why has it to be different with COVID vaccines? 

Coming back to the comparison between success of our vaccination drive and that of the US and other ‘capitalist’ countries, we should ponder over the fact that nowhere in the world, not even in the United States, are the citizens required to pay for the COVID vaccines.  Every government is inoculating its citizens for free; and without the pain that our people are going through to get it.

And yet we will claim in the shrillest possible tone that we “have overtaken the US” – or similar other countries – in the number of people vaccinated.

 If this is not a drama, what then is it? 

Postcript:   

After a full one week’s failed attempt to book an appointment for her second dose of vaccine at any of the government vaccination centres nearby, I drove my wife today into the basement of a mall and got it over in minutes on payment of Rs.780/-.  We are grateful to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for making such an excellent arrangement!

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