India's COVID-19 vaccination drive began on January 16. (Representative Image)
After a lull or flattening the curve for a few months, the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in some states such as Maharashtra, Kerala, and Punjab, shows that the battle with SARS-CoV-2 is far from over.
Health experts have urged the public to shed the complacency that has set in with the vaccine’s arrival, and have maintained that the vaccine is just one of the many elements in the fight against the virus. Along with the vaccine, the stress on testing, hygiene, masks, social distancing and the containment of infection clusters should continue.
That said, discussions around the progress in the vaccination drive have taken centre stage. On February 21, philanthropist and Wipro Chairman Azim Premji said that “If the government engages the private industry quickly, India can immunise 500 million people within 60 days”. Many around the world share this notion that private businesses can quicken the process, and enhance inoculation.
Fears about insufficient vaccines to inoculate the whole country has been put aside with companies establishing their production capacities for the year. India, the global manufacturing hub for pharmaceuticals, has showed how private companies can ramp up production to meet COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
Now the challenge is how quickly the vaccines reach every citizen — this is important with a spike in cases. The government has started well with about 11 million doses being already administered. The pace of the drive needs to pick up, and it demands the participation of the private sector. In recent times, the private sector's role in increasing COVID-19 tests is a positive sign which prompts their involvement in the vaccination drive as well.
Though the production challenges have been resolved, bottlenecks exist which are choking an effective and efficient vaccination drive. One of the major concerns is storage and logistics, and here the private sector could play a vital role. The short shelf life of the vaccines mean that without proper storage wastage could increase.
Cold storage is necessary for the doses while being distributed. Although the private sector has affirmed its co-operation, most private cold storage facilities are unevenly distributed between states, and are mostly located in urban areas. This disparity can be resolved if the supply chain management is incentivised.
What is required is more active vaccination sites and more trained staff to administer these vaccines. For this, the government can turn to private hospital chains and nursing homes. Today, only 2,000 private hospitals are roped in for the service, and this network needs to be expanded.
The participation of the private players — which is not limited to the big corporates — would play a significant role in the mass inoculation strategies. The staff at private labs, NGOs, CSOs, supermarket chains, etc. could be trained for this drive.
Along with this, an ecosystem supported and interlinked through web platforms can monitor the vaccination drive: who has received the vaccine, when is the second dose, side effects if any, etc. Anyone with an approved government ID should be able to walk into any of these vaccination sites. A database could be generated on the COWIN app to authorise the vaccine centres, and inform the general public on the vaccine choices in different locations.
India's formal sector is small, but in absolute numbers it is larger than the population of many countries. Many formal sector players have the systems and wherewithal to inoculate its employees and their dependent family members. In addition of the CSR funds available with these corporates, a little encouragement from the government will also see companies extending their vaccination efforts beyond their employees to the immediate neighbourhood. This is a win-win situation for all: companies can be rest assured about employee safety (and thereby increased productivity), employees and their families are protected, and in the process larger safe bubbles are created.
This will reassure the market and restore confidence in the economy. For those in the informal sector, unemployed or retired, the availability of the vaccine in the market will give the option to choose how to get vaccinated, and this will improve vaccine acceptance rate.
The government can prepare a plan of a direct cash transfer for those who need financial assistance for the vaccine. This could be announced after negotiating a price with the companies. Even this will not cost the exchequer more as the positive externalities overdrive the negative externalities caused due to COVID-19.
The need of the hour is that the government announces a public policy regarding the private sector’s involvement defining the stakeholders and laying out a roadmap for the whole vaccination drive. The private sector can supplement and complement the government's efforts.
As more vaccines are likely to be approved, options will be many and they should hit the market without being subject to rationing by the government. While vaccination is a public good and bestows a greater responsibility on the government, the greater the availability of the vaccine in a deregulated space, the closer we get to the intended outcomes.