As a new vaccine drive is getting underway in India, the health minister has said there is no vaccine shortage and accused critics of spreading misinformation.
At the beginning of 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus pandemic.
“India took a proactive public participation approach and developed a COVID-specific health infrastructure and trained its resources to fight COVID,” he said at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue on January 28.
Three months later, the coronavirus is spreading out of control, and India’s shaky health care system is crumbing. The government is now facing both a public health crisis and a crisis of accountability.
India is currently reporting record-high infection rates, with more than 300,000 infections daily for the past week. During the first wave of infections, the highest daily infection total hovered around 100,000.
The central government has been accused of not bolstering health care systems after the 2020 wave. Overloaded hospitals across the country are turning away patients, and people are fending for themselves to get treatment such as medical oxygen.
Some people are asking for help on social media platforms to find hospital beds for their loved ones. Even health care facilities such as Delhi’s Moolchand Hospital have had to ask for help on Twitter as they were running out of oxygen.
Indian states and union territories have urged the central government to provide more assistance with securing health care supplies.
The severity of India’s second wave has prompted the US and UK, as well as Germany and other EU nations to send help. Even India’s rival Pakistan has said it would send aid.
India expands vaccine eligibility
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has said there is no need for a “crisis of confidence,” and maintained that there are no shortages of diagnostic capacity and vaccines.
The “accelerated phase 3 strategy” for vaccinations now makes anyone aged above 18 years eligible for a shot. People can register via an app starting Wednesday.
Previously, eligibility had been limited to Indians older than 45, as well as health care and front-line workers.
The Times of India reported that officials in many states are concerned that they will not have enough doses to get the new vaccination drive started.
The health minister said the government was doing all it could to remove restrictions on supplying vaccines to individual states and territories.
“While the dreaded disease is spreading like a tsunami, it was critical to ease the controls and allow a free hand to the state governments as well as the private sector. Under the guidance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we decided to ease the vaccination policy norms,” Vardhan said in a blog post shared by the Health Ministry.
Vardhan said an attempt was being made to “spread a great deal of misinformation” about the phase 3 vaccination drive by opponents of the ruling BJP who are seeking to “politicize” the pandemic.
More vaccines needed?
India’s policy of exporting vaccine dosesbefore the new wave was apparent has drawn massive criticism. In March, the government announced that it would delay deliveries to the WHO’s COVAX vaccine-sharing facility.
On April 16, India reported it would ramp up production of Covaxin, the vaccine developed domestically by Bharat Biotech.
According to the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines and producer of AstraZeneca doses, production is being delayed by a shortage of raw materials supplied by the United States.
Public forecasts by the two vaccine producers show that their total monthly output of 70-80 million doses will only increase in two months, the Reuters news agency reported.
India recently also allowed the import of foreign-made vaccines such as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson for emergency use.
It is unclear exactly how many vaccine doses are currently available in India. The Times of India on Wednesday, citing health officials, reported there are 10 million doses currently available, with another 8 million are being made available over the next several days.
More oxygen on the way?
In the meantime, as local health authorities wait on vaccine doses, government officials have announced plans to make more medical oxygen available, including easing import restrictions and providing special trains to deliver oxygen to cities like Mumbai and Delhi.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on Thursday that 40 countries have pledged their support.
“We are talking about close to 550 oxygen-generating plants that are going to come in from different sources from all over the world,” Shringla told a news conference.
As India’s government races to acquire more medical equipment and vaccines as it deflects criticism, the virus continues to spread
Sarayu, a 24-year-old IT professional in the southern city of Bengaluru, told DW that her entire family of six tested positive for COVID.
“We are all healthy and active, with no comorbidities. Yet, my brother and mother required hospitalization, while the rest of us are also suffering. We have hardly been going out, and we are taking all necessary precautions. No one is safe this time,” she said.