According to the latest press release by the Honorable Prime Minister of India, vaccination will start in January 2021. After a year-long struggle with COVID-19, financial difficulties, job loss, and the constant threat of falling sick, this is the news that has somehow delighted us all.
Now, so we know that vaccination will kick off early next year, have you actually thought about how India will vaccinate millions of people?
What works in India’s favour?
India’s current population is nearly 1.3 billion. You might think that since India manages the largest electoral system in the world so efficiently, vaccinating a huge number of people will be easy. However, India has 900 million voters, whereas 1.3 billion people will need vaccine. Also, vaccination of mass is not as easy as managing the electoral system.
But as our honurable Prime Minister has pointed out, India also has in place the world’s largest immunization system. Since independence, children and pregnant women are vaccinated against major illnesses at both government and private healthcare facilities. These vaccines are produced, and stored in India and regularly transported across the length and breadth of the country to reach every village and city.
Hence India will utilise this system to bring the vaccine to the most remotecorners of the country.
What are the challenges that India faces?
While what the honorable Prime Minister said sounds promising, experts feel that things might not be so simple.
- For starters, vaccination against COVID-19 will have to happen in a matter of months. The regular vaccination schedule against other major illnesses is spread across months and years for children and pregnant women. The numbers too are manageable. Compared to the 1.3 billion people who need the COVID-19 vaccine immediately, the government immunizes 26 million children and 30 million pregnant women.
- The cold chain that stores and distributes vaccines is not in good shape. India has 27000 ice-lined refrigerators and deep freezers called cold chain points capable of preserving vaccines. But the temperature regulation mechanism in many of these does not work up to the mark. Also, powercuts raise the temperatures and may ruin the vaccines.
- Thirdly, India’s summers are notoriously hot. By the time immunization starts in full drive, summer will have arrived.
- State capitals and district capitals need to have plenty of temperature-controlled storage centres where the trucks and trains will deliver the vaccines from the manufacturing plants. Experts feel that there aren’t enough walk-in coolers and freezers in the states to cope with the huge quantity of vaccines they will need to store.
- India lacks enough number of syringes for vaccination of 1.3 billion population.
- Since 1.3 billion people will have to be vaccinated in a matter of months, we may not have enough healthcare workers to administer the vaccine.
Will vaccination of women and pregnant women be sidelined?
Another very legitimate fear that the government has not yet addressed is that if all resources are being directed towards providing the masses with COVID-19 vaccines, how will children and women be administered other vital vaccines? This could put millions of lives at risk.
What is India doing to overcome these challenges and what needs to be done?
Experts feel that India has to massively scale up infrastructure in the upcoming months.
- The cold chain points, freezers, walk-in coolers, ice-lined trucks, and trains need to be immediately repaired.
- The government has already joined hands with private organizations both Indian and international to produce more coolers and ice-boxes to transport the vaccine.
- The government will have to hire and train millions of volunteers who will be able to take the vaccines to the last mile so that people in the remotest parts of India receive the vaccine.
- Some states have already started preparing a list of how many syringes, doses, alcohol swabs they will need and are drawing up priority rosters of people who will receive the vaccine first. The collaboration between states and the Center needs to be amped up and the central government has to be fair in the distribution of vaccines.
- Hindustan Syringes has already scaled up its production of syringes to suffice the needs of vaccinating the entire population. Other organizations too need to step in if we are to have enough syringes for 2 doses of vaccine for everyone.
- The All India Organisation of Chemists and druggists is training approximately 400,00 people to administer the vaccines. But we will need more.
Unless the logistics are handled without error, India’s entire population will not be vaccinated as soon as we had expected. Collaboration internally and internationally is of the highest importance now.