Covid-19 vaccination in India: Lessons it can draw from the US experience

Unlike the US, vaccine hesitancy among large sections of the population is not an issue in India, but production is, writes Frank F. Islam for South Asia Monitor

Frank F. Islam Jul 15, 2021
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Covid-19 vaccination in India

Though the United States narrowly missed President Joe Biden’s July 4 goal of vaccinating 70 percent of US adults with at least one dose and fully vaccinating 160 million Americans, reasonable normalcy has returned to the country. All across America, people have begun going back to restaurants and malls, theaters are screening movies once again, and fans are back in arenas watching their favorite teams.

The most obvious example of the return of normalcy was a White House Independence Day celebration, hosted by the president and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for roughly a thousand people, the biggest party they have thrown since moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January.

Yet, even as America has emerged out of what Biden called “a year of pandemic and isolation, a year of pain, fear and heartbreaking loss,” its war against Covid-19 is not over yet. Vaccination rates have slowed down considerably with each passing week, resulting in rise in coronavirus cases in most parts of the country.

Last week, 42 of the 50 US states reported an increase in cases from the week before. The country witnessed a 47 percent increase in cases in the past week, with 19,500 new cases being reported daily. The reason for the uptick is the spread of the new and more virulent delta variant and slowdown in vaccination.

The delta variant, which devastated India in April and May, is now present in all 50 states. While all the three vaccines administered in the United States — two doses of Pfizer and Moderna and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson — have been found to be very effective against delta, it is the unvaccinated segment of the population that is causing concern.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 99 percent of Covid-19 deaths reported in the country last month were of unvaccinated people. So far only 48 percent of the population — 159.2 million people — has been fully vaccinated and 184.1 million have received at least one dose, according to CDC.

US vaccination challenges

The vaccination drive has plateaued for two reasons: vaccine hesitancy among relatively younger people (ages 18 to 34) and a widespread campaign against vaccines within the supporters of former President Donald Trump and the rightwing ecosystem. While a big section of the so-called Gen Z and Millennial population is dodging jabs because they think they are not at risk of contracting the virus, among the second group the issue is purely ideological.

Many prominent conservative figures have been campaigning against vaccines, with the goal of denying the Biden administration credit for containing the pandemic. Recently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whose prime time show commands more viewers than any other cable news program, called the White House’s latest door-to-door vaccination drive “the greatest scandal in my lifetime, by far.”

Public health experts warn that such irresponsible rhetoric is leaving a huge section of the US population defenseless against the virus, which is becoming more potent every time it mutates. In addition to putting themselves at risk, this group is also acting as a breeding ground for new variants of the virus to develop and spread. 

Referring to those who refuse to vaccinate, John Bridgeland, CEO and founder of the Covid Collaborative, a national assembly that brings together top leaders and institutions from across the US to tackle the pandemic, told Politico, “It’s completely illogical and it’s a death sentence.”

The administration’s latest initiative to combat this “death sentence”, announced by President Biden on July 6, targets vaccine holdouts by going to their houses and places of worship. It is enlisting local physicians and healthcare workers to convince those hesitant to take vaccines that they are safe, and not taking them would be foolhardy. The White House is also forcefully pushing back against the misinformation campaign against vaccines.

So, at the moment, the Biden administration is fighting on two fronts. The first against the virus itself and the second against ideological opponents who are willing to go to any length to deny the President any victory, even at the risk of putting their own lives and public health in danger.

Nonetheless, because of a single-minded focus on conquering the pandemic and an approach based on science, the US is well on its way to defeating Covid-19. “Today, we are closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus” and Americans are “beating the virus” and “breathing life into our economy,” Biden told his July 4 guests.

Lessons for India

As India prepares to battle a possible third wave of the pandemic, the country can learn a lot from the US experience. There are many lessons, the foremost of them being ramping up vaccinations substantially.  The American experience has proved that while vaccination does not necessarily prevent infection, it minimizes the infection and vastly reduces the risk of death.

India also needs to put the proper plans in place and mobilize the resources of the federal government in collaboration with state and local governments to fight the pandemic war; use the bully pulpit of the executive office and the media to get the vaccine message broadcast widely;  enlist volunteers to help fight the war; don’t expect 100 percent success but use every tool available to ensure that the largest number of people get vaccinated.

Since the onset of the devastating second wave, India has dramatically increased its vaccination rates. At the moment, the country is vaccinating anywhere from three million to four million citizens a day, on average. Given the size of the population, however, the country needs to double that rate. So far, only 5.3 percent of Indians have been fully vaccinated, which is less than half of the global vaccination rate of 12 percent.

Unlike the US, vaccine hesitancy among large sections of the population is not an issue in India, but production is. While boosting the domestic manufacturing capability, New Delhi should allow the large-scale import of vaccines already approved in other countries at the earliest. There are reports that the government will procure the first batches of Pfizer and Moderna shots next month.

Few countries have been as badly hit by the pandemic as India. Besides losing hundreds of thousands of lives, it has affected the livelihood of tens of millions of Indians. According to Bloomberg, more than 200 million Indians have now gone back to earning less than the minimum wage, while the size of the country’s middle class shrunk by 32 million last year.

Vaccination is the surest way of saving lives and bringing the Indian economy back on track. The Indian government should not leave anything to chance. It should learn the lessons provided by the US and other countries at the forefront in the war against covid-19 in order to win this war in and for the people of India.

(The writer is an entrepreneur, civic, and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)

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