Govt-run vaccine scheme is the best and, apart from a Covid-cess, CSR-spend can help defray a large part of costs
If the controversy over the efficacy of the vaccine—by clearing Covaxin before the Phase 3 trials—wasn’t bad enough, the uncertainty over its delivery is making things worse. Add to this, the politicisation over the delivery of the vaccine. Making vaccination a poll promise was always a bad idea, it had added to the uncertainty. Since the BJP won the elections in Bihar, should it want, it can honour its pre-poll promise of providing free vaccines—made by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman while releasing the party’s manifesto—but what of Hyderabad where the BJP made this promise but won only 48 of the 150 wards; will only those living in certain areas of the city now get vaccinated for free? And, what of Kerala where chief minister Pinari Vijayan made this promise during the third phase of local body elections in December. And, now Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has said that should the central government fail to provide the vaccine free, he will step in; are citizens of the capital to wait till there is clarity on whether the Centre is paying or if Kejriwal can afford to pay for everyone?
Ideally, as this newspaper has been arguing, the Centre should provide vaccinations free for everyone for a variety of reasons. One, only when it is free can universal inoculation be assured. Two, it keeps costs lower as vaccine-makers can be asked for bulk discounts; indeed, the vaccines got via Gavi will also be made available to the central government. More important, the Centre taking on full responsibility—with the states working on the delivery along with it—will ensure a uniform process of vaccination, proper follow-up and surveillance. Except for 3 crore persons for whom the Centre has promised to pay, there will now be a free-for-all, with families scrambling to get their hands on the vaccine—will it be sold to individuals or only to hospitals?—and you can be certain there will be unscrupulous agents who will start promising early vaccination in return for a commission; even fake vaccines can’t be ruled out.
All of this could have been avoided by levying a simple Covid cess and by encouraging those who can afford the vaccine to pay for it with the prime minister running a campaign similar to the #GiveItUp one he ran for subsidised LPG cylinders; having enough easy-to-use payment options would allow the better off to pay for their vaccines even as the government provides it free initially. Indeed, just as was done for PM-CARES, the law could be tweaked to allow corporates to use their vast CSR funds to pay for the vaccination of not just their employees but also other citizens. Indeed, since the vaccination is essentially a way to ensure the impact of Covid-19 is muted—as of now, only Bharat Biotech’s nasal shot is aiming at preventing the spread—the Centre could even ask insurance companies to chip in for those who are insured with them. After having fought a valiant battle against Covid-19 and worked with states to create enough capacity to fight it—whether by way of personal protection equipment or creation of hospital bed capacity—it would be unfortunate if the government got it wrong in the last lap.