The Indian government’s failed vaccine drive has caused thousands of Indians to needlessly die

india vaccine line
People wait in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Mumbai, India on April 24, 2021.

  • Modi announced last Monday that vaccines were now free for all adults in India.
  • But private hospitals will still charge for vaccines, and it is unclear whether the government has enough stock of free vaccines.
  • 200,000 Indians have died since the start of the vaccination drive thanks to the government’s mismanagement.
  • Peony Hirwani is a culture and political journalist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In the past five months, Indians have seen thousands of people die due to lack of oxygen, medication, ventilators, and hospital beds. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the nation with trepidation and has cost Indians more than it should.

Last Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that vaccines were free for all adult citizens. As delightful as the news sounds, later clarification showed this wasn’t actually the case. Private hospitals will continue charging for the vaccine, and the supply at government hospitals – where the vaccine is free – has been tragically low so far. From the start, India’s vaccine drive has been terribly mismanaged, costing thousands of Indians their lives.

Not enough people vaccinated

As of June 10, 359,000 Indians have lost their lives to the disease. Some of them could have been saved if the vaccine drive was better managed.

India began its inoculation drive on January 16 when it managed to administer a little less than 200,000 doses to frontline workers. On April 2, the number of administered vaccines rose to 4.3 million doses, and starting May 1, when the government announced vaccinations were available for everyone 18 years and older, the number of administered vaccines, on average, was around one million doses per day – far less than it should be for a country with 1.38 billion people.

As the 18 and older population attempted to sign up for a vaccine appointment on May 1, the registration websites crashed, and when people finally managed to get themselves registered, there were no slots available in most states. (Based on personal experience, the situation is still the same). Modi basically announced the second phase of the biggest vaccine drive in the world while knowing there wasn’t sufficient stock available.

So far, only 5% of eligible adults have been completely vaccinated in India – when we look at the entire population, the percentage drops to 3%.

High cost barrier

One of the primary reasons why more people haven’t gotten their jabs is due to the cost barrier and unavailability of doses.

India’s two leading vaccines, Covaxin and Covishield (AstraZeneca), have been administered to eligible citizens in government hospitals for free, but private institutions have been charging a whopping rate of 800-1400 rupees ($10.92-$19.11) for the jab. It’s next to impossible to register for an appointment at a government facility due to low stock, so most of the population, including me, had to choose the private option. I personally paid 850 rupees for my shot, a price which is completely unaffordable for a lower-wage worker who is looking to get their entire family vaccinated.

“I am so scared of the disease,” Dinesh Ramkumar, a watchman in the state of Rajasthan, told me. “One of our family members got infected a month ago and we spent almost all our savings for his treatment. Now, we were dependent on the government to provide us with free vaccines, but every time I go to the government center, they say that they don’t have any stock left … there’s no way I can pay 1,000 rupees for one vaccine as my family has 10 people, and it would cost me 10,000 rupees.”

Vaccine mismanagement

On Tuesday, after Modi’s announcement the day before that vaccines would be free, the government announced several changes to its vaccine policy, including a new cap on prices that private hospitals can charge. However, in many cases, these caps are higher than what the prices were before. The government has also capped the service charge for getting the shot at 150 rupees – a price which makes the whole thing unviable for the people who need the vaccine most.

Just last week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dismissed Bharat Biotech’s proposal for emergency use authorization for their Covaxin vaccine in the US. This news has certainly added to the already existing vaccine hesitancy concerns in India. It will also put a strain on India to develop enough doses of Covishield for the country’s population.

The Indian authorities have released a statement saying that Covaxin not getting emergency approval in the US won’t affect India’s vaccine drive, but that likely won’t change how residents see the news.

It’s baffling how mismanaged the entire immunization drive has been from the beginning. How did the world’s biggest antibody producer, dubbed the “pharmacy of the world,” end up with so few vaccines for itself?

More than 200,000 people have died in India since inoculation began. That’s how many lives would have been saved if the authorities had prepared for the second wave by arranging resources, ordering more vaccines, and making them available for free.

We all know that the only way to beat this deadly virus is through vaccines. So, why weren’t we ready? After the declarations this week, it still doesn’t feel like the vaccine has really been made free.

Based on how things have gone, I worry that people still won’t be able to register for the free shots as promised. Is there any meaning attached to Modi’s words? Only time will tell.

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Social media was a lifeline for Indians as COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals. But the government wants to censor it.

India coronavirus
A relative of a COVID-19 patient breaks down at LNJP Hospital, on April 21, 2021 in New Delhi, India.

  • India’s second coronavirus wave has overwhelmed hospitals.
  • But the government is focused on censoring discussion of its failures on social media.
  • A new law threatens social media employees with prison if firms don’t comply with takedown orders.
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For countless Indians, Twitter has been a way to track down medical supplies for friends and family sick with COVID-19, as a second wave overwhelmed hospitals.

But when one man appealed for oxygen for his sick grandfather in April, he was arrested and charged with spreading misinformation. Authorities in Uttar Pradesh, where the man lived, claimed there was no shortage, dismissing “rumors and propaganda on social media.”

One head of an NGO in New Delhi, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Insider he was called by police and told to shut down a Telegram channel he was running to procure medical supplies for those in need.

Authorities have been going after the platforms themselves too. Earlier this week, police went to Twitter’s offices in Delhi after the company labelled tweets by ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party as “manipulated media.”

Tweet manipulated media BJP member
BJP member of parliament Dr. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe was among those whose tweets Twitter labelled “manipulated media.” He shared a document claiming it was an opposition party plan to use the COVID situation to embarrass the Government. The opposition claimed it was fake.

They are also clamping down on more trivial matters. Last week, the government ordered Facebook and Twitter to remove references to the “Indian variant” of coronavirus – despite the fact the government itself was happy to call another variant “South African.”

Indian authorities’ attempts to censor criticism have become more pronounced in recent months.

A flashpoint came during anti-government farmers’ protests in January, when Twitter refused a government request to permanently ban accounts on free speech grounds.

At that time, COVID-19 cases were low and ministers encouraged people to resume normal life. But a more severe second wave struck. Earlier in May, the country set a global record for cases recorded in one day – 414,188 – and its seven-day average of daily cases is still more than 200,000, more than double the peak of the first wave in September.

India COVID daily cases May 28
The seven-day average of India’s daily COVID case rate shows the scale of the second wave.

Ministers have been condemned for not only failing to prepare for second wave, but allowing and even staging mass gatherings. In late April, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were asked to censor dozens of tweets and posts that criticized such failures.

This week, the standoff is coming to a head. A new law came into force Wednesday that threatens tech companies and their employees with prosecution and potentially imprisonment if they don’t comply with takedown orders within 36 hours.

Twitter issued a statement Thursday condemning “intimidation tactics” against their employees and the new rules’ “potential threat to freedom of expression.”

The statement vowed to continue a “constructive dialogue with the Indian Government” but added: “We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation.”

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been refuges for dissent in India. A US State Department report noted in March that Indian government officials were “involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets” through physical attacks, pressuring owners, as well as targeting sponsors and “encouraging frivolous lawsuits.”

Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Asia Policy Director at Access Now, a non-profit promoting digital civil rights, said the government’s actions were creating a “chilling impact on free speech.”

He added the repressive action tended to happen “when they think they are under pressure or come under more online criticism.”

Pratik Sinha, who founded one of India’s leading fact-checking platforms, AltNews, said the government had been content to leave social media alone before the farmers’ protests, when it was enjoying praise and India appeared to have avoided a COVID-19 disaster.

Indian Farmers Protests
An elderly farmers shouts slogans as protesters block a major highway during a protest at the Delhi-Haryana state border in India on December 1, 2020.

But Sinha said: “As soon as the narrative changed, people started using the very medium that has benefitted the ruling party for such a long time to voice their discontent … they don’t want these critical voices to come out.”

“These are clearly diversion tactics that the government is adopting in the middle of a pandemic.”

Samir Jain, policy director at digital rights think-tank the Center for Democracy and Technology, said threats of imprisonment were akin to “hostage provisions.”

He added the new rules would “only empower the government to escalate its attempts to stifle legitimate speech and further imperil the future of online free expression in India.”

Facebook and Google have both issued carefully-worded statements in response to the new rules, in contrast to Twitter’s strongly-worded response.

Google said it would “ensure that we’re combating illegal content in an effective and fair way, and in order to comply with local laws in the jurisdictions that we operate in.”

A Facebook spokesperson told Insider that the company would “comply with the provisions of the IT rules and continue to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government.”

WhatsApp, which belongs to Facebook, is suing the government, saying the rules would allow authorities to trace the source of messages, a violation of the app’s end-to-end encryption.

Senior BJP member of parliament and former party vice-president Dr. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, whose tweet was among those labelled “manipulated media” by Twitter, told Insider in a statement: “The refusal and reluctance of social media platforms to abide by the rules and regulations made applicable by the government is inexplicable.”

“Law of the land is supreme and nobody can disregard India’s constitution,” he added.

“Besides, the opaqueness of their algorithms and lack of transparency in their decision making makes their case of taking a unilateral decision of flagging some Tweets totally undemocratic.

“India is a robust and institutionalized democracy and the Government cannot allow any company to take us for granted.”

AltNews’s Sinha said the government could not continue to suppress its failures over the pandemic.

“People are grieving. There’s anger,” he added. “You can’t just suppress anger, it’s bound to come out.”

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India has reportedly threatened to jail Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp employees if the firms don’t give up data regarding the farmers protests

Indian Farmers Protest
Members of human rights organisations hold placards in support of farmers during a protest against the central government’s recent agricultural reforms in Amritsar on December 10, 2020.

  • India is threatening to jail Twitter and Facebook employees, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • The threats are to pressure the tech companies to give up data related to the farmers protests.
  • Indian farmers have been protesting since late 2020 after the country passed agriculture reforms. 
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India is reportedly threatening to jail WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook employees to pressure the firms into sharing data related to the farmers protests.

Sources told The Wall Street Journal the tech companies had been reluctant to provide India with the user data it requested. 

Indian farmers have staged a mass protest – among the largest in history – since late last year to demand the government repeal legislation that allowed farmers to sell directly to private buyers instead of selling to the government. Farmers argue selling to private buyers would drive down prices because the government guarantees a minimum price on all goods.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed for the farming laws to modernize Indian agriculture, but the widespread protest has riled a key voting bloc. The tense protest has resulted in violence, arrests, and the government’s decision to cut internet for farmers.

The Indian government wrote letters to Facebook and Twitter citing specific employees in the country who risk jail time if the firms don’t comply, per The Journal.

Tech firms and the Indian government have clashed on multiple occasions during the demonstration. Twitter restricted, and later quietly restored, the accounts of journalists and activists sharing information about the protest. The firm then said it suspended up to 500 accounts flagged by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

“I politely remind the companies, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or WhatsApp or anyone, they are free to work in India, do business, but they need to respect the Indian Constitution,” Ravi Shankar, the justice and technology minister, told India’s parliament.

Last year, Facebook invested a record $5.7 billion in the Indian telecommunications firm Jio, an move that could extend its reach into the world’s second most populous country. India has more Facebook users than any other country, per CNN.

Facebook and Twitter did not provide additional comment to Insider. 

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