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Just as India was patting itself on the back for bending its corona curve and looking forward to life as usual after a year-long nightmare, the risk of a nasty second wave has mutated into a significant threat. Fresh surges of covid infection have been reported from parts of Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. An Indian variant of coronavirus is thought to be responsible for most of these, raising the spectre of Britain’s experience with a more virulent strain afflicting us too. Our sense of relief over the past few weeks was back-stopped by two bits of good news. One, our daily case count seemed in terminal decline, having slid sharply from its peak of above 95,000 in mid-September to less than 9,000 by early February. And two, armed with outsized capacity for vaccine production, touted as the world’s largest, we had embarked on a vast vaccination drive. Neither is a cause for comfort any longer. Daily cases are back in five digits and state-given jabs have failed to pick up pace more than five weeks after the Centre’s effort began. While the US has achieved 19 doses for every 100 citizens, our jab tally is yet to reach 1% of India’s population. This places us in a precarious position. Before the pandemic gets a chance to flare up again, the government should let private services get into the act.

The relative task efficiency of the private sector is beyond doubt. On Sunday, while urging the government to grant it an active role in the exercise, Wipro founder and philanthropist Azim Premji put a figure to what that could translate to. By his estimate, as reported, 500 million people can be vaccinated in 60 days should private participation now be allowed. If Serum Institute of India (SII), which churns out the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine under the name Covishield, starts supplying various hospitals and clinics with vials at 300 per shot, they could administer them at a service charge of 100 each. Premji’s suggestion on pricing seems to assume a government subsidy, as SII’s low price was only for bulk supplies to the Centre and the company had stated that Covishield’s market price would be 1,000 per dose. However, the costing aspect of his proposal need not detain us. The urgency right now is to immunize as many Indians as quickly as possible, and for this to happen, we cannot afford not to let a vaccine market emerge. Scarcity could possibly have justified a state monopoly, but the statements of producers show that vial availability is not a constraint. Then what explains the government’s insistence on its own apparatus to give us jabs?

One clue may lie in health minister Harsh Vardhan’s rhetoric about a week ago. Who would take the blame, he demanded, if shady operators started making money off fake jabs? The very tone of it betrayed a distrust of the market’s ability to do its job. In a country that sells thousands of approved life-savings drugs through chemists licensed to act as guarantors of product authenticity, the minister’s argument was particularly baffling. Indeed, at a time when the government has been extolling the virtues of private enterprise, its vaccine policy looks like a throwback to the licence raj. It must give up the pretence that just over 11 million jabs—given at a rate of about 300,000 daily—qualify as success. They do not. State laxity has made our August deadline to shield 300 million of India’s most exposed and vulnerable look like a fantasy. It’s time to get real.

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