ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Spectacle as a Distraction

The euphoria around the COVID-19 vaccination milestones conceals misdirected priorities and incomplete goals.


R Ramakumar writes:

A society of the spectacle.” That was how Guy Debord once characterised what he referred to as “the autocratic reign of the market economy, which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty.” Across the world, right-wing populist politics has effectively used “spectacles” to produce an ideologically converging set of cult-oriented imageries. These imageries are primarily meant to distract attention from misgovernance and to pacify the masses, but have also proven to be effective means to influence politics, culture, and everyday life.

The officially sponsored celebrations in India over the administration of the one-billionth COVID-19 vaccine dose are an example. Despite extensive evidence on flawed planning and execution, a massive media blitzkrieg accompanied the celebrations. The blitzkrieg was carefully designed to distract attention from the government’s inability to ensure production of sufficient vaccine doses; its failure to fully vaccinate the majority of the vulnerable group; its deviation from the global consensus around administering vaccines freely and universally; and its undistinguished record that only 21% of the total population was fully vaccinated, even after nine months since vaccination commenced.

In June 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that India aimed at “universal vaccination.” Yet, by the end of 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare was advocating a “smart vaccination strategy,” where vaccines were to be targeted only at the vulnerable groups. In fact, the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research declared that “the pandemic can be contained without vaccinating the entire population.” Consequently, large at-risk investments to expand production capacities were set aside; “foreign” vaccines were disallowed emergency use approvals; and purchase orders for vaccines were delayed to January 2021.

The second wave and the acute shortage of vaccines in April 2021 exposed the vacuity of these positions. The union government woke up from slumber realising that production could not be raised in the short run. A safe exit plan was then crafted. The “liberalised vaccine policy” priced vaccines and tried to pass on half of the responsibility of universal vaccination to state governments and private hospitals. The assumption was that higher prices would incentivise private producers to increase supply. However, the policy flopped. The Supreme Court intervened in May 2021 and noted that the liberalised vaccine policy was “prima facie arbitrary and irrational.” In response, the policy was partially amended. While the union government absorbed the state’s quota, the quota for private hospitals was retained. This hesitant shift did not help; production did not rise as expected, even as vaccine doses piled up at private hospitals due to poor demand.

After April 2021, the average daily vaccination rates fell to 19.2 lakh doses in May, 39.5 lakh doses in June, and 42.7 lakh doses in July. On 7 April, India had demonstrated its capacity to administer up to 50.3 lakh doses in a day. If vaccination rates were not allowed to fall after 7 April and production was concurrently expanded, the one-billionth dose could have been administered in July or August and not the end of October. This is a matter of worry, not celebration.

The celebrations were misplaced and premature for at least three more reasons. First, India’s was not the world’s largest vaccination programme as claimed by the union government. By end-October 2021, China had already administered 2.3 billion doses at an average rate of 1.5 crore doses per day. About 80% of China’s population were vaccinated twice. In contrast, India’s vaccination rate was 61.3 lakh doses per day in August, 78.9 lakh doses per day in September, and 54.4 lakh doses per day till 27 October. Only 75% of India’s adult population were partially vaccinated and only 31% of its adult population were fully vaccinated.

Second, India is set to miss its declared target of August 2021, of fully vaccinating the vulnerable sections (that is, healthcare workers, front-line workers, and those above the age of 45). Among those above the age of 45, only 82% were partially vaccinated and 46% were fully vaccinated by end-October. Given the higher probability of mortality and the presence of comorbidities within this group, poor coverage is a matter of alarm and not celebration.

Third, the union government is set to fail, as promised, to fully vaccinate all adults by December 2021. To vaccinate every adult twice, India would need about 185 crore doses. In the two months of November and December 2021, India would need to make available about 75 crore to 80 crore doses averaging close to 40 crore doses per month. However, India administered only 23 crore doses in September 2021 and 16 crore doses in October 2021. At this rate, India would administer the last of the first dose only in the first three months of 2022, and the last of the second dose by mid-2022. Again, missing a target by at least five to six months is hardly a reason to celebrate.

Rational public discourse should typically be centred on milestones informed by public health concerns, and not political spectacles. Spectacles transform active citizens into passive spectators; gradually, they become “the guardian of sleep.” Indeed, the vulgarity of the state-sponsored celebrations was a disturbing statement on the state of India’s democracy itself.



Updated On : 30th Oct, 2021
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