Union Health Minister blames states, citizens for Covid surge

Dr Harshvardhan, has lashed out at Government of Maharashtra, and blamed citizens for the rise in cases, but makes no mention of crowds at election rallies, Kumbh Mela

Image Courtesy:indiatoday.in

In a never seen before level of transparency the government of Maharashtra, led by Uddhav Thackeray, has been the only one this year to warn of an impending lockdown, share the number of rising cases, and asked the Union Government for more Covid-19 vaccines before its stocks run out. However, the Union Health Minister, responded for the first time on the Covid-19 surge by directly attacking the Government of Maharashtra, and as an add on, blaming ordinary citizens for the rise in cases. 

Even as news reports have stated that apart from Maharashtra, other states such as Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh have raised concerns about erratic vaccine supply the Union health minister has maintained that there are no shortages, and has blamed the states for inefficient handling of the vaccination drive.

However, according to Dr Harshvardhan, Maharashtra has given only 73% vaccination in terms of first dose to frontline workers. He added that even “Delhi and Punjab have vaccinated 71% and 65% respectively,” and compared it to  states / union territories that have vaccinated more than 85% people. However, there has been no data shared on the stocks of vaccines available or given to the states that have requested more, so far.

CM Thackeray, and other CMs, have also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to further lower the age group eligible for vaccination to 25 years old to curb the intensity of the rising cases in the state. However, the Centre has maintained that the vaccine will be given to ‘those who need it’ and not those who want. The minimum age limit, meanwhile, has kept lakhs of younger citizens, many of who are going out to earn a living, or may have comorbidities, out of the vaccination drive. For eg. If a 35 year old diabetic who works in a medical store seeks to get Covid-19 vaccine, they will have to wait for the age limit to be lowered.

Meanwhile, the Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, has accused the states seeking a wider vaccination coverage, of “poor vaccination efforts.” He issued an official statement calling the state government demands “Deplorable attempts by some state governments to distract attention from their failures and spread panic among the people”. He has said the state governments are making “irresponsible statements” and accused them of trying to “mislead the public and spread panic.” 

Without naming Thackeray directly, Dr Harshvardhan said it is “most concerning” that “a section of political leaders” have asked to lower the minimum age criteria for vaccination eligibility. The Government of India has been frequently and transparently updating all the state governments about the demand-supply dynamics and the resultant vaccination strategy that has been adopted.” He added that the “the vaccination strategy has been drawn up after extensive deliberations and consultations in partnership with all State governments”. However that still does not answer the question of the increased need for vaccination and the rising number of Covid-19 infections across the country even among people younger than 45 years of age which is the current minimum criteria for getting a vaccine shot.

Dr Harshvardhan attacked Maharashtra, which has transparently reported the surge in cases and said the state was “allowing [citizens] to escape institutional quarantine for the sake of “personal vasuli (personal extortion).” Harsh Vardhan alleged that Maharashtra “has lurched from one crisis to another, it seems as if the state leadership is happily sleeping at the wheels.” Dr Harshvardhan has not yet been reported to have made any such attacks on states such as Karnataka, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh which have also been reporting a high number of cases. Or states where election rallies have been held without any Covid-19 precautions visible.

Maharashtra’s Health Minister Rajesh Tope, has stayed focused on remaining the centre that vaccine stocks were low and urged the Centre to expedite the delivery of vaccine doses to the State. Speaking to the media in Mumbai, he said Maharashtra’s daily vaccination rate was the fastest in the country and said hence the state needed a stable supply of at least 40 lakh doses of Covid-19 vaccines each week. He said, “At present, we just have 14 lakh vaccine doses, which will get over in the next three days. We’ve asked for 40 lakh more vaccine doses per week. At the moment, Maharashtra is reeling under a severe shortage with many districts and vaccination centers reporting that they have no doses to give.” Tope has also been regularly updating the number of cases and other data on social media. Tope also asked that the Centre allow states to inoculate people from the age group of 20-40 years on a priority, “I have told the Union Health Minister that Maharashtra is the only state which has strictly followed ICMR rules and is strictly following ‘T3’ [test, treat, track] principle.”

However, for Dr Harshvardhan, “so long as the supply of vaccines remains limited, there is no option but to prioritise… When states ask to open up vaccine supplies to everyone over 18, we must presume that they have done saturation coverage of healthcare workers, frontline workers and senior citizens.” But this does not answer why the younger population, who is more exposed to the Covid-19 virus when they go out for work should not be vaccinated.

He has accused that states who are asking for lower age for vaccination are “trying to divert attention from their poor vaccination efforts by just continuously shifting the goal-posts” adding that he had seen “statements made by public representatives in Maharashtra about shortage of vaccines” and said “this is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from Maharashtra government’s repeated failures to control the spread of pandemic. The inability of the Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among the people is to compound the folly further.”

According to the Union Health Minister the requests for more vaccines made by states are “allegations of vaccine shortage” and “are utterly baseless”. He attacked Maharashtra Government for “misgovernance and utter casual approach of the in battling the virus” last year and accused it of a “lackadaisical attitude” blaming the state government as the one that “singularly bogged down the entire country’s efforts to fight the virus.” 

“We, in the central government, have regularly counselled the Maharashtra state government, made them available all resources and sent central teams for help. However, the lack of efforts of the part of the state government is now clearly visible and comes to haunt us all.” He said Maharashtra’s testing is “not up to the mark and their contact tracing leaves a lot to be desired.” He also accused the Thackeray-led government of “putting Maharashtrians in danger by letting people escape institutional quarantine mandates for the sake of their personal ‘Vasuli’,” and accused the state leadership of “happily sleeping at the wheels.”

A gentler ‘scolding’ as it were, was reserved for Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, etc. However, the Health Minister has so far remained mum on the surge in Uttar Pradesh and the lack of Covid-19 protocol in crowded spaces such as election rallies, and of course no word yet on the plan of action on how social distancing etc will be put in place at the Kumbh Mela at Uttarakhand this month.

Serum Institute of India says vaccine production lines are under stress 

While the government is yet to comment on the issue of a possible vaccine shortages, the Serum Institute of India (SII) has said “its production lines are under stress” According to a report by NDTV Adar Poonawala, CEO, SII, has said it was unable to export vaccines (which it sells at a higher price) because of restrictions placed by India and this was curtailing profits necessary for larger manufacturing capacity investments. He has also reportedly stated that India must provide it ₹3,000 crore ($408 million) to boost capacity. According to news reports SII company produced about 65 million vaccines a month, mostly for use in India. However, now India is administering over 2-4 million doses a day, and stocks may quickly dry up. According to news reports SII had been sent legal notices by AstraZeneca over delays, and a ban by the United States on exporting raw material necessary for making the Novavax vaccine meant that their production capacity had halved.

It has been reported that the Centre has also ordered 20 million doses of Covaxin made by Bharat Biotech, but there is no information yet on how quickly it can meet the projected demands of 120 million. According to a report in The Hindu, Bharat Biotech, too, has reportedly requested funds from the government for ramping up production. India has supplied about 64.5 million doses of Covaxin and Covishield to at least 84 foreign governments as of March 29, and has administered 84 million to its own people. So far, only 5% of Indians have received at least one dose and only 0.8% have been fully inoculated.  

No masks seen at election rallies, but masks compulsory when alone in a car

The Delhi High Court meanwhile has ruled that it is compulsory to wear a mask or face cover in a vehicle even if it is occupied by a single person. According to media reports Justice Prathiba M. Singh has said that, “a mask is a ‘suraksha kavach’ for preventing the spread of the coronavirus.” The court dismissed four different pleas challenging the ₹500 challan issued for not wearing face masks while travelling alone in a private car. According to media reports the court remarked that “a vehicle which is moving across the city, even if occupied at a given point in time by one person, would be a public place owing to the immediate risk of exposure to other persons under varying circumstances.” Not wearing one is in violation of the Delhi Epidemic Diseases (Management of Covid-19) Regulations, 2020. Justice Singh reportedly said that a “person may have visited a market, or workplace, or hospital or a busy street, prior to entering the car or vehicle. Such a person may be required to keep windows open for the purposes of ventilation”. 


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