View: Blaming the government’s pandemic response? Do it for the right reasons

The Union government has received a lot of flak over its management of the pandemic response, and deservedly so. But I want to look at three incorrect — or at least problematic — frames being used to blame the government’s pandemic response, inadequate and confused as it already is. The intention is to focus on questions that matter.

Incorrect Frame #1:

Blame Vaccine Diplomacy

As cases have skyrocketed and vaccine supplies have plummeted, India’s vaccine diplomacy has come under the scanner. Today’s dominant narrative is that by prioritising vaccine exports over domestic inoculation, India did a disservice to its people. I disagree. It’s not altruism but national self-interest that guides international humanitarian assistance efforts by all states. By giving away vaccines to smaller states in the subcontinent, India signalled the positive role it can play in the world order. Another way of thinking about vaccine diplomacy is to think of its opportunity cost. At the current vaccination rate, India would’ve had just five additional days of supplies had it not given any of the nearly 10.7 million doses as gifts to other countries. A majority of the deliveries (almost 35 million) have been under commercial terms between manufacturers and other countries. Moreover, had India blocked commercial exports earlier, India would’ve received much less enthusiastic support from other countries in this moment of crisis.

Holding the Union government accountable for its mistakes is essential. Equally important is identifying what the exact error was. The original sin was not placing enough vaccine orders because the government was complacent about having conquered the virus. It calculated that the pandemic would peter out even with a snail-paced domestic vaccination campaign.

By internalising that India was wrong in extending its help to other countries in its own time of predicament, we would be learning the wrong lesson. Such heuristics tend to stick around for long in the Indian strategic affairs community. Try arguing for developing overseas operations military capability of any kind, and the idea will be shot down, citing the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPFK) failure in Sri Lanka nearly three decades ago. Vaccine diplomacy mustn’t be perceived as another IPKF moment.

Incorrect Frame #2:
Government Has No Money

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; how we love this story. Every ineffectual leader in times of crises gets equated to Nero. This time around, the charge of callousness rests on the government’s plan of redeveloping India’s central administrative area at a reported cost of nearly Rs 20,000 crore. The critics argue: can’t the government redirect some of this money for problems that are dire and important today — increasing the number of hospital beds, oxygen plants, and vaccine procurements?

From a political perspective, this line of attack probably makes for a powerful narrative. Postponing work on this project until the second wave subsides in Delhi would make it morally defensible. But from a fiscal perspective, calls for cancellation of this project make little sense. That’s because the government has enough monetary resources at its command for both fighting the pandemic and building a new Parliament. Consider the facts. Rs 20,000 crore is to be spent over multiple years, of which less than 2,000 crore is being spent this financial year. For perspective, this is 0.05% of the Union government’s FY21-22 budget. Focusing on such projects plays in the hands of the government by inadvertently giving it cover on its pandemic response on account of money constraints. But we know that the State as an institution doesn’t easily run out of money as households do. If it does, it always has the option of running a deficit for really long periods. If there ever were a case to be made for deficit financing, a raging pandemic would be it. After all, what is the use of a democratic republican State that cannot spend to protect the life of its citizens dying by the thousands every day? In essence, we must hold the government responsible for spending whatever it takes for accelerating vaccination, central vista or not.

Incorrect Frame #3:
Blame the Phase 3 Strategy

The move to allow state governments, private hospitals, and industrial establishments to procure vaccine doses directly from the manufacturers has been under fire ever since it was announced. The criticism is on two counts. One, this approach would lead to confrontation between state governments seeking better deals from manufacturers. Two, the Union government can use its scale to strike better deals with domestic and foreign manufacturers.

The problem with this criticism is that it heavily overestimates the Union government’s capacity. To expect a government that couldn’t strike advance contracts with a handful of manufacturers to now do all the above is to ignore the constraint that inadequate state capacity imposes.

Another deeply ingrained narrative today is that if a government can organise Kumbh Mela (spot the irony) and nationwide elections, it is equally capable of organising a mission mode vaccination campaign. Unfortunately, it is more likely that vaccinations will continue in the slow burn mode over multiple years and will need to deftly change track as the virus mutates and better vaccine variants get discovered. A centrally planned system is inadequate for managing this problem.

It’s better to get state governments and private players involved. As the number of vaccine candidates increases, more options will become available to these entities, far quicker than a centrally planned system run by a low-capacity union government.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the Union government can wash its hands off entirely. It still has an indispensable role to play. It can accelerate domestic production by getting all vaccine manufacturers to share know-how and ramp up capacity. Two, while the global supply squeeze eases, it must create a transparent mechanism for distributing the scarce supply within states.

In sum, to get the correct answers, we need to ask the right questions, again and again. This pandemic is as much about learning the right lessons as it is about not learning the wrong ones.

The writer is deputy director of Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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