By S N Sahu | PUBLISHED: 24, Oct 2020, 12:54 pm IST | UPDATED: 30, Dec 2020, 12:27 pm IST
BJP manifesto for Bihar elections 2020 promises people of the State that it would make them available COVID vaccine free of cost. This promise is enshrined in the manifesto as item no. 1 and none other than the Finance of Minister of India Shrimati Nirmala Sitaraman made the announcement that if voted to power her party, BJP, would ensure that every one in Bihar would get access to vaccine without bearing any cost for protecting his or her health and life from coronavirus infection. Several questions are raised against the promise of a free COVID vaccine by BJP. First and foremost question is the availability of the vaccine itself.
Is there indeed a vaccine available now any where in the world? The answer is a clear and resounding no. All the vaccines candidates including India are engaged in experimenting the vaccine and its trial is currently conducted at various stages to find out its effectiveness and complications if any it would cause to health and well being of people. Because no vaccine has attained finality and, therefore, has not been cleared by doctors and regulatory bodies for administration to humans it is too early for any Government to claim that it would provide it free of cost to millions of people. Since vaccine is not available its cost has not been calculated. In the absence of any idea or knowledge of cost of the vaccine how on earth a political party could promise that it would provide it to people to free of cost.
Let us juxtapose the BJP’s promise of free COVID vaccine to people of Bihar and Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik’s suggestion for cost free COVID test made to Prime Minister in March during his video conference with Chief Ministers of different States of our country. Shri Patnaik had suggested the Union Government to take urgent steps to scale up testing facilities – both in private and public institutions – for the detection of COVID-19 and such facilities should be made available to people free of cost. His suggestion was in tune with the WHO chief's message calling for more and more testing to identify and isolate those infected by the virus. When he made that suggestion India had very limited testing facilities and those were available at less than a hundred centres. Those were highly inadequate in proportion to our billion plus population and given the easy vulnerability of people to the deadly virus.
At that time the cost of the test was also known and so a method could have been worked out taking into account our scientific and technological capability to scale up testing, do it at a mass scale and correspondingly reduce the cost of test. That calculation could have enabled us to bring down the cost of testing to a significantly low level and take appropriate financial and fiscal measures to ensure people’s access to COVID testing facilities completely free of cost. It was against that backdrop that Patnaik’s suggestion assumed critical significance for the entire country which was grappling with the initial spread of virus in India and Odisha had only two COVID positive cases and no fatalities at all.
Let us be mindful of the countries which very successfully tackled the COVID crisis by scaling up tests and making them available to people free of cost. For instance in South Korea, widespread tests were conducted and infected people were identified and necessary steps were taken to successfully deal with the impending danger. It was suggested that the Indian government obtain test kits from South Korea and make necessary arrangements to ensure people’s access to such test kits free of cost. Such a measure combined with the Patnaik’s suggestion would have enabled India to trace, test, isolate and treat people infected by the coronavirus and defeat the danger posed by the virus.
Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, in an interview to Karan Thapar had also suggested that India needed to sharply scale up it’s testing and test 10.000 people every day against the meagre 11,500 tests undertaken by March 17, 2020.
It is indeed pitiable that the suggestion of Naveen Patnaik for providing COVID test facilities free of cost to people was not accepted by Prime Minister Shri Modi. It was a highly doable idea and suggestion and, indeed, the Odisha Government under the leadership of Shri Patnaik has set an example for the whole country by making COVID tests and treatment totally free of cost for people.
So the point is that when Prime Minister Shri Modi did not act on Shri Patnaik’s suggestion for making COVID tests free of cost for people then what guarantee is there that BJP would act on its number one promise of its Bihar election manifesto for making COVID vaccine free of cost for people of that State? In fact the said BJP promise of free COVID vaccine is violative of Model Code of Conduct which mandates that the party making a promise in its manifesto should provide broad outlines of the finance and money required to implement it and in this case the BJP manifesto is absolutely silent on such broad outlines. The PM should lead by setting an example, as it has been done in Odisha, and then only the promise of free COVID vaccine would acquire some credibility.
# The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.