Using corona vaccine as a poll promise a cynical attempt to play on pandemic fears

By: |
October 24, 2020 7:15 AM

All Covid vaccines should be free given this is a national emergency; why offer this free only if you vote for the BJP?

There are even more disturbing consequences of what has been promised.There are even more disturbing consequences of what has been promised.

Even by the populist standards of most election manifestos, the BJP’s promise of a free Covid-19 vaccine for the state’s citizens is a new low. On the surface, it suggests real concerns like healthcare have finally become issues that can win elections as opposed to promises of free power, free electricity, etc. At a deeper level, it is a cynical attempt to play upon the fears of the citizenry of a disease we still know little about even 10 months after it hit the country; vote for the BJP, the message goes, and we will give not only give you a miracle cure, it will be free of cost. Never mind that, as of now, there is no clarity on which of the several vaccines being developed will work and, more important, how long the immunity they offer will last; the WHO has suggested that even vaccines that have a 50% success rate should be cleared for use.

There are even more disturbing consequences of what has been promised. Till now, the Centre and the states have largely coordinated well on fighting the pandemic—evident in how well states committed their machinery to enforcing the Union government’s lockdown decision and unlock guidelines—but that partnership is now being sought to be jettisoned. Indeed, the Centre had discouraged states from trying to procure vaccines on their own; the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration, under the national Covid-19 task force, had made it clear in its first meeting that states shouldn’t chart their “separate pathways”. Such an approach made sense given how a fragmented vaccine strategy could impact eventual efficacy and efforts to beat the pandemic. But with a vaccine now a poll promise, states will be encouraged to look at their own solutions since it is no longer clear the partnership will endure; fortunately, the BJP promise of free vaccines to the state did not add that Bihar would be the first state to get the cure if it voted BJP.

Till now, the impression given was that the vaccine would be bankrolled by the central government. And that makes sense since the country is totally safe—assuming the vaccine works as hoped—only when everyone is vaccinated. With BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya tweeting that the Centre would be giving the vaccine to the states at a nominal rate, the issue of people paying for the vaccine—unless the state government does, on their behalf—has suddenly come up. This is a national emergency—indeed, a global one—and the cure has to be something the central government should be paying for. Putting the onus of recovering costs on the states means those that are cash-strapped may be forced to either delay the vaccine or cut back on other important expenditure. It is, of course, true that the better-off should pay, but this cannot be at the cost of universalisation of the vaccine; so, as the prime minister did so successfully with his #GiveItUp campaign for LPG subsidy, perhaps they can be exhorted to voluntarily pay for the vaccine. The idea of the PM-Cares fund was to be able to fund all Covid relief, and without the red-tape associated with most government expenditure; surely the vaccine cannot be less important than PPE kits or N-95 masks, ventilators, etc? The government got a lot of bad publicity when it asked state governments to pay—even if this was a nominal amount—for transporting migrant workers back to their homes; it is in danger of doing the same by suggesting that states, or their residents, will have to pay for the vaccine, even if the amount is a small one.

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