Vaccination

India's COVID vaccination drive infused with doses of propaganda

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Outside the public health centre at Wilson Garden in Bengaluru on June 30. By October 21, India had vaccinated 52.7 per cent of its population of 1.38 billion with one dose and only 22.6 per cent with both doses. Photo: MURALI KUMAR K

The reality on the ground shows that the government’s promise to vaccinate all Indians by the end of 2021 is mere rhetoric. But the propaganda machinery is working overtime to credit Prime Minister Narendra Modi with success.

Political considerations, especially realpolitik concerns, have been integral to the COVID vaccine rollout of governments in almost all countries. Even so, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance government’s brazen and bizarre political propaganda games in this respect are unparalleled. Like all propaganda exercises driven by Modi and his cohorts in the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, the stratagems relating to the vaccine rollout were characterised by bluster; rhetorical self-aggrandisement; appropriation of the suggestions and recommendations of others, including political adversaries; grandstanding through event management; manipulation of facts; and, at times, falsehood. In the midst of all this, there were colossal misjudgments and failures in ensuring vaccines in sufficient quantities for domestic use and deploying them systematically. Confronted with such major crisis situations, the Prime Minister and his key associates adopted deafening silence from time to time.

The latest of these propaganda games unfolded in the second half of October, when India’s vaccination drive reportedly reached the 100-crore mark. As in the early stages of the vaccination drive, the public relations machinery of the government and the BJP presented this as a personal achievement of Modi. In an opinion piece in The Hindu, Modi wrote: “India has completed vaccination of 100 crore doses on October 21, 2021, in just about nine months since starting vaccination. This has been a tremendous journey in dealing with COVID-19, especially when we recall how things stood in early 2020. Humanity was dealing with such a pandemic after 100 years and no one knew much about the virus. We remember how unpredictable the situation appeared then, as we were faced by an unknown and invisible enemy mutating rapidly. The journey from anxiety to assurance has happened and our nation has emerged stronger, thanks to the world’s largest vaccination drive.”

The claim about the world’s largest vaccination drive was evidently a hyperbole; according to international monitoring agencies, China, with a population of approximately 1.44 billion as of 2020, had given the first dose of vaccination to 82.5 per cent of its population, with 74.8 per cent receiving both doses. In comparison, India, with a population of 1.38 billion, had vaccinated 52.7 per cent of its population with one dose and only 22.6 per cent with both doses.

Also read: Grand cover-up: The Narendra Modi government's celebration of one billion COVID vaccine doses

This disparity could be attributed to several factors, including overall and long-standing deficiencies in India’s health infrastructure, especially in the more populous north Indian States. However, one of these factors was a governance misjudgment. The misjudgment, of the ruling coalition’s political machinery during the last months of 2020 and early 2021, was that Indians were moving towards herd immunity and that the country could afford to go slow in its vaccination drive.

This presumption, which was avidly promoted within the ruling dispensation, led to the Central government’s announcement in the last months of 2020 to vaccinate only 300 million of the country’s health and front-line workers and the most vulnerable in the first six to eight months of 2021. By the time this decision was made, India, which has historically been credited as the world’s biggest producer of vaccines for polio and diphtheria, had taken huge strides in COVID vaccine production too. Taking a cue from the political establishment, health officials in the Central government and several BJP-ruled States repeatedly stated that there was no need to vaccinate all adults.

‘Vaccine Maitri’ diplomacy

Along with such assertions came Modi’s proclamation of “Vaccine Maitri” [Vaccine Friendship] diplomacy in which he promised to share India’s gains in vaccine production with other countries. This project was unravelled in early 2021 even as the first rollout of vaccines was happening domestically. In a matter of four months, 6.6 crore vaccine doses were sent to 95 countries. As many as 1.1 crore of these were as grants and 5.5 crore doses by way of fulfilling commercial commitments. The grants were earmarked for countries designated “very poor” and those with “sizable Indian diaspora” and “neighbouring countries”. In January 2021, speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum’s online meet, Modi highlighted these exports and declared that India was among the most successful countries in saving lives.

Once again, the political establishment highlighted this initiative as a result of Modi’s “great vision to turn around the negative image that was thrust on his government in the recent past by inimical forces, within the country and outside”. As a matter of fact, the negative image stemmed from a series of human rights violations and suppression of democracy and freedom of speech, which were evident in the imposition of a jackboot State in Jammu and Kashmir and the ruthless assault on social activists and mediapersons on issues such as the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and coverage of sensational cases, including gang rape.

Also read: India's one billion COVID vaccine doses: A milestone, and miles to go

But there were other designs too for Modi’s “Vaccine Maitri” diplomacy, as revealed by many Sangh Parivar insiders. According to Giriraj Singh, senior BJP leader and Union Minister from Bihar, India and its supreme leader Modi were being hailed as saviours of the world amidst the pandemic. He also argued that the Prime Minister’s detractors were to trying to sabotage Modi’s chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for the global distribution of COVID vaccines (Frontline, May 21, 2021). Thus the grandstanding in relation to “poorer nations” and “neighbouring countries” had a hidden agenda too.

Vaccine shortage

Even as all these discussions were taking place within the Sangh Parivar, the second wave of COVID hit India severely, and the country faced a massive vaccine shortage. It became clear that India was exporting vaccines in utter disregard of the severe shortage of vaccines in the States. Talking to Frontline at that time, a senior Health Ministry official from Uttar Pradesh pointed out that “no other country in the world other than India was exporting vaccines at a time when the vaccine penetration within the country remained at below 5 per cent of the population”. He said “the ‘pharmacy of the world’ was gifting vaccines to the world, while leaving its own citizens high and dry”.

The severe impact of the second wave and the vaccine shortage resulted in widespread public outrage. Autorickshaw drivers in several parts of north India, including the national capital, and students from across the country put up posters condemning vaccine exports. In keeping with its time-tested tactic, the Modi government held the opposition parties responsible for this protests and even alleged that all these were the result of a “toolkit” prepared by the Congress to target Modi.

However, the Sangh Parivar leadership also started getting feedback from the rank and file of the RSS and other associate organisations reflecting the public resentment against the vaccine shortage and the Central government’s inadequate performance with regard to the vaccine rollout. Despite this, even as late as the third week of April, the Modi government maintained that those in the 18-45 age group would not be able to avail themselves of free vaccination at Central government hospitals. Individually, Modi and his closest associate, Home Minister Amit Shah, went into a infamous “crisis-driven silence”.

Also read: The fiasco that is India’s COVID-19 vaccine policy

However, there was a growing realisation within the Union government that India would have to rely on foreign vaccines to meet the domestic demand. Even while accepting this need, the Modi government asked States to buy vaccines from domestic manufacturers or import the doses on their own to inoculate adults below 45. Several States floated global tenders to import vaccines but none was successful. This too caused much disquiet, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal pointed out that the Modi government was forcing State governments to compete against one another internationally for a scarce commodity.

Along with this, the government ignored repeated demands for universal free vaccination by several opposition-run State governments and parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). They kept raising this demand throughout May and in early June and followed up with concrete moves, including some administrative forays. Chief Ministers Pinarayi Vijayan, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee and Hemant Soren of Kerala, Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand, respectively, raised their voices through resolutions in the Assembly, letters to the Union government and press conferences.

Supreme Court’s intervention

The Supreme Court too took cognisance of the alarming social and medical crisis. In an order uploaded on the Supreme Court website on June 1, the apex court asked the Union government for a vaccine road map and called out its policy of not sanctioning free vaccines to those aged 18 to 44 as “arbitrary and irrational”. Literally directing the Centre to “undertake a fresh review of its vaccination policy addressing the concerns raised”, the bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat sought detailed information in the form of an affidavit. The court further said that “our Constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are infringed by Executive policies”.

Assessments within the Sangh Parivar at this time suggested that the Modi government was facing the worst period of its seven-year rule. Speaking to Frontline, a senior RSS activist said: “There was agreement that Modi, in his prime ministership, has never been challenged and cornered in a way as he is now. The second wave of COVID has generated unprecedented popular anger against Indian authorities in general, and the Modi government in particular.” (Frontline, July 2, 2021.)

Also read: India impossibly short of vaccinating its entire adult population against COVID-19 by the end of 2021

Following all this, on June 7, the government announced a “grand vaccine rollout” campaign, including provision of free vaccines to people aged 18 to 44. According to Sangh Parivar insiders, this policy change came with the rider that Modi would have to once again unleash his “histrionic skills” to save the image of the government and the party. This would also involve all-out political attack on the opposition for the “confusion” in the vaccine policy.

Modi carried out the latter part of the understanding on June 7 itself. Other components of the political histrionics soon followed. Days and events were chosen for special vaccine drives, with the aim of keeping the focus primarily on Modi. Thus, on June 21, International Day of Yoga, as many as 86 lakh doses were administered across the country, highlighting that Modi had given the impetus for this special drive. On September 17, Modi’s 71st birthday, this was repeated at a higher scale with a total of 2.5 crore doses, and the propaganda machinery brazenly terming it as a “gift” to Modi. Clearly, the propaganda machinery is making ardent efforts to etch a so-called historical success story.

The free vaccine myth

Yet, several high-pitched claims made as part of this propaganda drive, including the much-touted one on free vaccines, are being questioned repeatedly on the ground. Questions on such issues abound even in the National Capital Region (NCR). Free vaccines were given only twice a week at Noida’s community centre in Sector 56, where a drive began in July. In Khoda, a nearby semi-urban mohallah, the free vaccination drive was centred around primary schools. However, serpentine queues and few dosages forced many to go to neighbouring Mayur Vihar in Delhi to get vaccinated.

Ahil Ahmed, a medical caretaker, said: “It is difficult to find free dose for the second vial. I have been trying to book on the Internet for days on end, but wherever I click only paid doses are available. Whenever free doses are available, they finish early in the morning. So, one has to return empty-handed if one goes in the late morning or afternoon.”

At Ram Lal Kundan Hospital in East Delhi only paid doses were available, and there are few takers for that. Things were different for the first dose of vaccination when people came enthusiastically. But their enthusiasm has waned for the second dose.

Also read: ‘India’s Covid vaccination drive has been underwhelming’

The renowned Fortis Hospital in Noida, barely a couple of kilometres from Khoda, administered 22,000 doses, a large percentage of which was paid for by consumers. The story was no different at Kailash Hospital, the brainchild of Mahesh Sharma, the BJP Member of Parliament and former Union Minister. At Eye Care Hospital in the vicinity, 20,000 doses of Covishield were given from end January to October 15. However, they were not for free. At Apollo Hospital in New Delhi’s Jasola Vihar, where around 50,000 doses were given until October 21, not a single dose was given free. Likewise, at Max Hospital in Saket in South Delhi, all the 23,000 doses were given on payment.

Apprehensions about the efficacy of the vaccine too linger in the minds of many people. Many others are concerned about the loss of wages from spending almost a day at a government facility for free vaccine. Bhura Khan, a carpenter, who has not had a single dose, said, “So many have fallen ill after taking the vaccine. I work every day. I have not taken any medicine. I am fine. The claims of free vaccine are all for television viewers. If I go and stand in a queue for half a day for free vaccine, I lose my wages for the day. In the past, when the government had a polio vaccine drive, they used to come to our houses to give the drops. Why cannot they do so today?”

Bhura Khan’s words should provide food for thought for a government that claimed in the last week of May and later in June that India’s vaccination would be completed before 2021.

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