India to give free vaccines to citizens over 18 in covid fight

Medics tend to a man with breathing problems inside a COVID-19 ward of a government-run hospital, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Bijnor district, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

India has fast-tracked vaccine procurement and will provide free shots to citizens above 18 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address to the nation on Monday.

The South Asian nation faces the challenge of vaccinating its large adult population as it emerges from a devastating second virus wave, with a critical shortage of inoculations leading some centers to close down as the country struggled to ramp up domestic production and procure doses internationally.

Modi’s speech came against the backdrop of a near breakdown in health infrastructure over the last two months, with major Indian cities running out of oxygen and hospitals flooded with patients, while crematoriums struggled to keep pace with the number of those who died of covid-19. His administration has come under intense criticism over its handling of the second wave and the vaccination rollout and its popularity ratings have fallen from 75% in 2019 to 51% this year, according the Local Circle polling company.

While experts are worried about the slow rollout, state politicians have blamed the federal government for forcing them to compete against each other to procure vaccines, with the country’s top court criticizing Modi’s policy as “arbitrary and irrational.”

The South Asian nation has administrated 232 million doses since the beginning of the world’s biggest vaccination drive that began on Jan. 16, with 3.4% now fully immunized. At this pace, it will take another 22 months to cover 75% of the population, according to Bloomberg Vaccination Tracker.

While the federal government gives free vaccines to those over 45 and front-line workers, state governments and private hospitals have until now been left to inoculate people from 18 to 45 years for a fee.

The government has said over 2 billion doses will be available by December — enough to vaccinate the adult population — but there is no indication the main vaccine manufacturers in India will be able to ramp up production to meet that goal, nor whether India will be able to purchase doses from overseas to make up the shortfall.

Modi last addressed the nation on April 20, when he urged states to avoid lockdowns even as the country was heading toward record daily infections of more than 414,000. Soaring new cases and a spike in daily deaths forced both India’s financial and political capitals to impose restrictions on movement, as citizens took to social media in a desperate search for oxygen and lifesaving medicines.

The wave has been steadily declining since the peak on May 7, and New Delhi and Mumbai have began to ease their lockdowns on Monday as India reported 100,636 new infections and 2,427 deaths.



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