TOPIC – Centre’s second shot

“Vaccine can’t be the new oxygen. It needs centralised procurement, decentralised distribution.”

The Centre’s Covid-19 vaccine strategy revolving around differential pricing and decentralised procurement needs to be reworked for an effective expansion of the vaccination programme. The Covid vaccine is a public good and the Centre has to helm its rollout as the target group expands to all those above 18 beginning May 1. The Centre must anchor the purchases — negotiate factory gate prices, but subsidise the consumer — and distribute among states.The key is to decentralise distribution, not procurement. The clamour for decentralisation revolved around providing states greater flexibility in the rollout of the vaccination drive — if a state deems it necessary to vaccinate one sub-set of population given the peculiar geographic and demographic spread of the infected, then so be it. It was not to create 28 separate state entities negotiating with a private manufacturer for a public good. This needlessly complicates the process. Who will be given priority? Surely, it can’t be first come, first served. Neither can it based on the quantum of order placed. Who will decide on allocation of vaccines across 28 states and eight Union Territories? Cannot be the sales directors of vaccine manufacturers. What is needed is to avoid a repeat of the oxygen crisis — state governments, guided by their considerations, blocking vaccine trucks from leaving their territories, causing anxiety in other parts of the country. Or, rushing to several High Courts for supplies and then waiting for the honourable Supreme Court to make sense of it! Because the fact is vaccine stocks are limited, and it has to be rationed. The vaccine basket has all of two vaccines, the new ones are weeks, if not months away. The anxiety of several state governments isn’t misplaced. A more prudent approach would be to rely on a judicious mix of centralisation and decentralisation. Yes, some states and experts may have asked for a glorious free market for vaccines unmindful of the stocks and the science. But it is surprising the Centre took that simplistic suggestion so seriously. What is needed is a single government body (Centre and states) negotiating with vaccine manufacturers both prices and quantity, with states empowered to pursue a distribution strategy they deem fit. Of course, prices at which vaccines are bought should be high enough to incentivise manufacturers to ramp up production – altruism is no business model. But the pricing distinction made between Central and state governments — both represent the people — should be dispensed with. Private hospitals are integral to the rollout and their supplies should be under the regulatory eye of governments — the CoWin platform will anyway register each vaccination. Irrespective of price, vaccines to end users can and should be subsidised by governments. Once the vaccine basket expands — and expand it will — there is merit in providing greater flexibility. Considering that vaccine is the only stimulus the country needs, at this critical juncture, the Centre needs to take a second shot on the strategy. How vaccination expands will shape how this treacherous curve bends.