On the 6th of April, Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that the COVID-19 vaccine is for those who ‘need it’ not for those who ‘want it.’ Explaining the phased approach that has been taken by the government of India as far as the COVID-19 vaccine is concerned, Bhushan said that the purpose of the vaccine currently was two-fold: to prevent deaths and to protect your health care system.
He further said, “The most vulnerable in the country has to be protected, and that is what is being done globally also”. The Union Health Secretary was addressing questions being raised currently about why the vaccination drive has not yet opened to the entire population, essentially, everyone above the age of 18.
The statement, expectedly, created a furore. The pliant media that has done paltry little other than fan chaos and confusion in the middle of the pandemic and the politicians who have used the pandemic to serve their political goals, came out all guns blazing to slam the statements made. The aim was rather simple – to insinuate that the government is either ill-equipped to handle the vaccination process or to imply that the government simply did not care.
While Rajesh Bhushan attempted to explain himself in an interview to ANI, where he said that vaccines have to be prioritised to the most vulnerable, Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter today to, of course, play politics and mislead the public.
Outright, Rahul Gandhi rejected the very basis of the argument of prioritisation and claimed that every citizen deserves a chance to safe life. “It’s ridiculous to debate needs and wants”, he declared.
It’s ridiculous to debate needs & wants.— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) April 7, 2021
Every Indian deserves the chance to a safe life. #CovidVaccine
Is it “ridiculous”, however? While that statement alone may confuse some, Bhushan’s full statement about the prioritisation of vaccine administration makes perfect sense. A Twitter user who goes by the handle @surajbrf wrote an elaborate thread about just how futile the outrage surrounding the prioritisation of vaccine truly is.
In the year 2020, a manual called ‘COVID-19 Vaccine, Communication Strategy’ was released by the Ministry of Health. In the detailed manual, the government of India listed the measures to be taken, training to frontline workers, what each segment like the media, government officials etc are meant to do to communicate the plan and more.
In one section, back in 2020, the prioritisation of who gets the vaccine first and why have been listen in great details.
The manual says that it is obvious that initially there will be a limited supply of vaccines and thus those at the highest risk of getting infected with COVID-19 would get vaccinated first. The manual says that there are two essential criteria for selecting these ‘beneficiaries’. The first being whether that group is at a greater risk of exposure to infection and belongs to an age group having high COVID related death. And the second is to select those who, when vaccinated, would minimise the spread of the virus.
Based on these two criteria, the government of India decided to first vaccinate health care workers, frontline workers and the population above the age of 50 years. Thereafter, the government decided to vaccinate those who had comorbidities that put them at high risk of death due to COVID.
The manual then says that those below the age of 50 and with no comorbidities would be vaccinated after the priority high-risk groups were vaccinated.
This prioritisation plan for the vaccine is interestingly not followed by India alone.
What CDC recommends: Prioritisation of vaccines
The Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the US federal health protection agency, has recommended a similar phased strategy to vaccine the population. The CDC recommends vaccination in 3 phases, 1a, 1b and 1c. In the first phase, it recommends that vaccine be administered to healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents.
For phase 1b, CDC lists the following groups:
- Frontline essential workers such as firefighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, United States Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the educational sector (teachers, support staff, and daycare workers.)
- People aged 75 years and older because are at high risk of hospitalization, illness, and death from COVID-19. People aged 75 years and older who are also residents of long-term care facilities should be offered vaccination in Phase 1a.
And for phase 1c, CDC lists the following groups:
- People aged 65—74 years because they are at high risk of hospitalization, illness, and death from COVID-19. People aged 65—74 years who are also residents of long-term care facilities should be offered vaccination in Phase 1a.
- People aged 16—64 years with underlying medical conditions which increase the risk of serious, life-threatening complications from COVID-19.
- Other essential workers, such as people who work in transportation and logistics, food service, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health.
It is pertinent to note that while CDC puts people older than 75 in their phase two, India has reduced that age barrier and included people above the age of 50 as a priority group to be vaccinated.
It is evident that India is following the standard world over in terms of prioritisation of vaccines to those who are in need of the vaccination the most, given either their age or their occupation (frontline workers).
In the midst of a raging pandemic, it is obvious that the government will not be able to vaccinate the entire 1.3 billion population all at once. The logistics alone would be a nightmare. The logistic of ensuring that every vaccination centre is stocked to vaccinate the thousands, given the storage compulsions of the vaccine itself would be an impossible feat.
When the vaccine process is prioritised, the government ensures that the vulnerable population gets vaccinated in an orderly fashion. This becomes important since the aim of the vaccination process in the middle of a raging pandemic is to minimise deaths and arrest the spread of the virus itself, therefore, those who at risk of contracting the virus the most would need to be vaccinated first.
Therefore, it is evident that the criticism by Rahul Gandhi comes not only from a place of ignorance but from a place of malice since fanning fear and chaos during an already raging pandemic can be construed as nothing else.
Media – Nero’s Guests creating panic about COVID-19 vaccine process
While Rahul Gandhi often stands with a match to light an already explosive situation in the country, the media is seldom left behind. Playing Nero’s Guest, the media chimes along, spreading panic and chaos in the country, hoping that politically it might help those they support.
Shekhar Gupta, the erstwhile Chief of Editors Guild of India and the current owner of The Print took to Twitter to spread downright fake news and conjecture.
PM Modi wrongly blames the ‘babus’. Problem is the Bharat Sarkar mindset. It believes it always knows what’s best for the citizen who must be a dumbo. That’s why it knows who NEEDS the “scarce” vaccine, and who WANTS it for vanity. Governments love rationing.— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) April 6, 2021
There are two distinct aspects of the conjectures spread by Shekhar Gupta.
The first part is rather interesting. Gupta starts by saying that PM Modi has ‘wrongly blamed the babus’. Given the context of the tweet, one would imagine that PM Modi had distanced himself from the state of the Union Health Secretary and blamed ‘babus’ for deciding the vaccine strategy and prioritisation process. However, that is not the case.
The last statement that Prime Minister Modi made in this context related to the importance of the private sector vis-a-vis the public sector. The reference to babus had nothing to do with the Coronavirus pandemic or the vaccination process. Therefore, it is baffling as to why Shekhar Gupta would use that statement in a completely unrelated context, especially, while talking about a subject as sensitive as a raging pandemic in the country.
Gupta further says that the problem actually rests with the “Bharat Sarkar mindset” because it believes that it knows what is best for the public. He further said that the government pretends that it knows who NEEDS the “scarce” vaccine and those who WANT it for vanity.
However, that is not the issue here at all. The government is not “rationing” the vaccine because it believes that a part of the population wants it due to their vanity, but because giving it first to the vulnerable section of the population firstly achieves the stated aims of a vaccine programme during a pandemic and secondly, is a norm world over.
The government is not rationing the vaccine because it believes that a majority section of the population wants to take the vaccine to ‘flaunt’ it in their circle of friends or because they want to assert some sort of higher social status after being vaccinated. The fear of being infected with COVID-19, given the deaths world over and the rising cases, is a real, palpable one.
In such times, the media plays a large role in trying to assuage those fears by communicating with the public and explaining to them just how important it is to ensure that the vulnerable get the vaccine first. The media is also supposed to explain to the population that given the vaccine to the vulnerable ultimately benefits them too as it would arrest the spread of the virus itself. The media is supposed to tell the people that they need to wait their turn and be patient, though losing patience seems like the only option available after a year of dealing with the pandemic.
The media is also supposed to tell the world that India is doing a good job, given the constraints of sheer size of its population.
The media is supposed to tell people that India has overtaken the United States of America in the 7-day average and has almost matched China’s slope as far as vaccinating its people is concerned.
In fact, in the manual itself, the government has repeatedly urged media, influencers, social mobilisers, religious leaders to ensure that the masses get the correct message about the vaccination drive. It seems evident, however, that media personnel like Shekhar Gupta and politicians like Rahul Gandhi are less than bothered about what the nation needs them to do when it is battling a pandemic.