The vaccination scenario in India feels like a throwback to the 1970s, when restrictive policies had created black markets for foreign products like cornflakes that had high snob appeal
One glorious day in my Colaba childhood, I watched my grandfather score an extraordinary bonanza from below the counter of our favourite grocery store. The wordlessly intense transaction was all widened eyes; then a wink and inclined nod sealed the bargain. In an impenetrable flash of tightly-wrapped brown paper, the contraband passed swiftly from hand to hand and disappeared into our shopping bags. We raced home giddy with excitement to unveil the prize in all its precious glory. It was a box of cornflakes.
That pulse-racing black market foray took place in 1978, at the height of the good old bad old days of Indian socialism, when ‘atmanirbhar’ was pronounced ‘swadeshi’, and we used to hoard bars of imported soap like gold ingots. Under various kinds of pressure from successive governments, capped by the then-reigning Janata Party and its industries minister George Fernandes, an entire slew of multinational corporations was forced to exit India. IBM and Kodak disappeared, and—an arrow to my 10-year-old heart—so did Coca-Cola.
This created artificial shortages—because foreign goods remained freely available to anyone with access to the outside world—and fuelled pointless, pyrrhic jockeying. Thus, in those days, the green-eyed monster wore blue jeans, and the whiff of imported aftershave would leave a crushed, envious silence in its wake. Similarly, neither my grandfather nor I were bothered by the fact that we preferred medu vada for breakfast, because anyone could eat that. Our exercise of flamboyantly telegraphed inconspicuous consumption was in order to have what our neighbours did not. The most desirable ingredient in our processed American cereal was exclusivity.
Fast-forward to the throes of our collective pandemic predicament, and aspects of that 1970s’ weirdness are reverberating anew. Just like back then, we are being compelled to live with all kinds of restrictions: some rational, but many derived from incompetence, mismanagement, and bad policies. An emergent asymmetric market for covid vaccines distinctly mimics those days, because there are “premium" Western versions, a Russian equivalent, and at least one potentially dubious desi product. Who is going to get which, and how? Why are we racing to follow other countries? Is this medu vada versus cornflakes all over again?
“In actual fact, the pandemic has behaved in a very unique way in India," says Dr. Vikram Patel, the Pershing Square professor of global health at Harvard Medical School, who points to serological surveys indicating that covid has already swept through the country, leading to infection rates that exceed 50% in some populations. This, he says, “poses an existential question which I don’t believe is being debated: why and who would we vaccinate? Relatedly, should a country whose health system is in such shambles, as illustrated earlier this week by a devastating fire in a district hospital which killed a number of neonates, be spending so much money on a vaccine programme for a disease which is well on its last legs and which has a vanishingly low mortality rate?"
For decades, Patel has spent much of his year living across the Mandovi river from my home in Goa, where both of us were caught unawares by the erratic, arbitrary way India’s smallest state implemented its first draconian lockdown to combat the virus. The eminent public health expert was lathi-charged by the police while simply buying vegetables near his home. Now he says the inchoate race to roll out inadequately-tested vaccines displays an element of “keeping up with the Joneses" which “was exactly the same inspiration which led to the lockdown in March, assuming that the way the pandemic was decimating wealthy countries would hit our country as badly or even worse." Those decisions proved misplaced, and Patel warns that “in a country famous not only for its astonishing levels of deprivation, as illustrated by the stubbornly high levels of malnutrition, coupled with one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, we should be doubly wary of the vaccine programme being hijacked by vested interests, a euphemism for the rich and well-connected. I hope the government will ensure that the programme is entirely run by the state and that not a single dose is allowed into the private market until all the priority populations, in every region of the country, have been immunized."
Those are reasonable recommendations, but we all know they have zero chance of being implemented in India, where we live among other Indians who will gleefully elbow, jockey, bribe, outbid, cajole, threaten or outright hit our fellow citizens rather than form an orderly queue for anything. The free-for-all over vaccination is likely to resemble 1970s black-marketeering, but raised to the power of life-and-death. This next arms race—literally—is probably already happening just outside our line of sight. As the Daily Telegraph recently tweeted, “A £25,000-a-year UK private concierge service is flying its members [abroad] to receive vaccinations… from today it started administering the AstraZeneca vaccine in India."
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer