Home >Opinion >Columns >The world’s vaccination drive is stuck in second gear

On Tuesday, the chief executive officer of Deutsche Post DHL criticized governments everywhere for not doing enough to anticipate the challenges of the vaccine rollout. “We have not seen enough foresight for how the last mile will work," said Frank Appel. In language usually used to describe the obsession of listed companies with short-term results, Appel told the Financial Times that politicians across the world were always “looking at what is happening next week."

The drive to vaccinate billions of people across the world was always going to be the challenge of the century. Having got vaccines developed and approved in record time, governments are struggling with distributing them and vaccinating adult populations. The European Union is involved in an ugly spat with Astra Zeneca to corner some of its production for Europe. In India, problems with the CoWIN software and unexpected vaccine hesitancy by some members of the medical community are handicapping the vaccination drive. Much of the world is off to a slower start than expected. Meanwhile, mutating viruses such as those that started in southeastern England and South Africa are adding to the pressure to get significant segments of the population vaccinated.

The EU’s problems highlight an age-old faultline between the developed and developing world: the West talks a better game on trade than it practises. Last week, Jean Pisani-Ferry, a senior fellow at Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel put the contradiction in stark terms while laying out an argument for the developed world picking up the bill for vaccinating the developing world. “Either design and implement a comprehensive global strategy, or seal borders and let countries fight it out with the virus one by one. There is no effective middle way," wrote Pisani-Ferry for Project Syndicate. His logic is easy enough to follow: In a world where travellers and migrants to Europe are as often as not people from Senegal or Punjab, “the prevailing combination of vaccine nationalism and half-open borders is a losing strategy," he argues. The UK strain has already spread to most American states and the Brazilian strain is moving rapidly across the US too (and is in Germany). The H1N1 virus arrived in New York City years ago via more than 20 American high school students returning from a mid-term holiday break in Cancun. In 2003, SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, was likely unleashed in Hong Kong by an infected doctor from across the border in Guangdong who checked into a hotel to attend a wedding in Hong Kong.

Helpfully, Pisani-Ferry has a price tag for vaccinating 75% of the world’s low-income and lower middle income population, which totals 4 billion people. At $10 per vaccine, he estimates that effort to cost $30 billion, which he points out is just 2% of “the crisis-induced fiscal loss already incurred by advanced economies." Focused on the struggle to achieve herd immunity via vaccinations by summer or autumn in the US and EU, it is likely that this sensible proposal will not be taken up with the urgency it deserves. The international community would also do well to heed a call by India and South Africa to relax patents on vaccines themselves, so that these can be manufactured across the developing world more inexpensively.

As the world’s largest vaccine producer, India would seem ideally positioned to roll out the vaccine. Just over a fortnight into the effort, however, reports of problems with the CoWIN digital platform, designed to register for and track the vaccination process, as well as no-shows by many healthcare professionals when they should have been getting vaccinated, suggest the opposite.

A few years ago, the repeated crashing of India’s goods and services software in the initial phases of its use by thousands of businesses was an ominous sign, as also the ministry of corporate affairs’ (MCA’s) notoriously problematic e-filing process. India is the world’s back office for software and process management. Yet , it has a government that struggles to build reliable software for ministry after ministry. Some months ago, the usually gracious head of a small Bengaluru accounting firm was almost shouting in frustration as he described how he had to delegate the task of registering businesses on the MCA website to two young colleagues because he feared for his health if he tried to do so himself.

India needs to ensure that CoWIN is robust enough to deal with millions seeking appointments, let alone tracking vaccines from manufacturing plants to jabs received by hundreds of millions of individuals. Faisal Farooqui, co-founder of, a consumer review company, told Business Standard last week that making vaccine registration a completely electronic process in a country with such varying digital literacy and connectivity (including in the government) was an unsound idea. The government needs to go beyond healthcare providers to find people above 60 and thus enlist what marketers call early adopters who could become evangelists for vaccination.

Writing in Gulf Today on Tuesday, Rajendra Aneja, a retired Unilever executive with considerable experience in managing distribution in India and elsewhere in the developing world, remarked on the self-congratulation that accompanied India’s vaccination of three million people in the first fortnight of the January rollout. It’s an achievement for sure, but he pointed out that at this rate, the country would need 12 years to vaccinate 1 billion Indians.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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