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As daily COVID-19 cases peak in India, Modi opposes free vaccines

 As daily COVID-19 cases peak in India, Modi opposes free vaccines

Although the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 infection in India this week fell below 300,000 for the first time in almost a month, the official death toll has reached successive highs, with 4,329 deaths recorded Tuesday and 4,529, Wednesday.

To make matters worse, the pandemic has found new breeding ground in rural and remote areas of India where more than 65 percent of the country's population live - over 800 million people mostly oppressed and impoverished. . Health care infrastructure is virtually non-existent in rural areas.

As daily COVID-19 cases peak in India, Modi opposes free vaccines
People wait to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai, India on Thursday, April 29, 2021 (AP Photo / Rajanish Kakade)

As gruesome as the official infection and death figures are, they are widely viewed by health experts as gross underestimates of the true extent of the COVID-19 disaster in India. Some scientists estimate that the actual death toll during India's "second wave" of the pandemic, which began in mid-February, is five to ten times the official figure. This would mean that tens of thousands of people are currently dying from COVID-19 every day.

The blame for this dire situation lies entirely with Modi, his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and India's venal capitalist elite who, less than two months ago, still boasted of India's allegedly exemplary management of the pandemic. Modi has consistently ignored warnings from his scientific advisers regarding the development of the second wave which is fueled by new, more infectious variants, including strain B.1.617, first identified in India and which has now spread throughout the world. whole world. Instead, Modi continued to insist, as his government has been doing for over a year, that nothing should hinder corporate profits, even if the official daily death toll climbs to 3. 000 in mid-April and that India was emerging as the epicenter of the global pandemic. Modi said we must "save India from containment", not from the virus.

The deployment of vaccines by the government, which is in disarray, is in the image of Modi's strategy: "profits before lives". His government categorically refuses to provide free vaccines to the Indian population, which in practice means that hundreds of millions of poor people will have to do without. The BJP government has also left the production of the vaccines and a significant portion of their distribution to private companies who rake in huge profits from the exorbitant costs the government has allowed them to charge. In addition to further enriching the fabulously wealthy Indian elite, the Modi government made the decision to rely on private companies to show the world the prowess of Indian capitalist enterprise.

The result of this policy is that India has one of the highest prices in the world for COVID-19 vaccines. Covishield, which is based on the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, costs $ 12 per dose, while Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech, costs $ 17 per dose. Both vaccines require two doses. To put it in perspective, a recent report indicates that the pandemic has pushed an additional 235 million Indians below the government's "poverty line", which is set at an income of 375 rupees, or about $ 5 a day. Thus, for a significant portion of the population, vaccines are effectively out of reach.

Dr Devi Shetty, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed national task force to design a scientific mechanism for delivering medical oxygen, remarked in an interview with India Today TV on May 15: “How many people in the country can afford to spend so much money on a vaccination? The past few months have been very difficult for the working class and the poor. Many did not have a source of income ”.

Compared to the lavish sums spent on the Indian military and the obscene levels of wealth amassed by the country's billionaires - which Forbes says have seen their wealth nearly double over the past year to $ 596 billion - the cost of immunization of all people over the age of 18 is a pittance. The total cost is estimated at $ 6.4 billion, or just 0.32 percent of India's GDP, a small fraction of the 2020 defense budget, which stands at over $ 71 billion. .

The refusal of the Indian ruling elite to spend this miniscule amount to protect the population against the virus fits directly into the logic of its chronic underfunding of health care in general. For decades, the Indian state - meaning all levels of government combined - has spent the equivalent of just 1.5 percent of GDP on health care.

This nefarious neglect is compounded by the criminal response of the imperialist powers to the pandemic. Led by the United States, they refused to lift the pharmaceutical giants' patents on vaccines and blocked the export of vaccines and the materials needed for their production. The United States has thus accumulated hundreds of millions of doses in a reactionary initiative which aims to transform potentially life-saving vaccines into one more weapon in the vast military and diplomatic arsenal of American imperialism.

Last month, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, revealed that at the beginning of April, low-income countries had administered only 0.2 percent of more than 700 million doses of vaccine administered worldwide, while the richest countries had received more than 87 percent. "A shocking imbalance remains in the global distribution of vaccines," he noted. “On average, in high-income countries, almost one in four people have received a vaccine. In low-income countries, it's one in more than 500. Let me say it again: one in four to one in 500. ”

When the Indian government launched its vaccination campaign in mid-January, Modi boasted that it was the "largest vaccination program in the world". Initially, the program was limited to people over the age of 60 and to people 45 or older who had co-morbidities. People between the ages of 18 and 44, or nearly 600 million people, were included in the program from May 1, even though the government knew full well it did not have the required vaccines and it would lead to chaos and additional difficulties.

As of May 15, India, the world's second most populous country with 1.38 billion people, had administered just 182 million doses of the vaccine, according to Our World in Data. Only 40.4 million people, or just 3 percent of the total population, have been fully immunized.

The total population over 18 in India is around 966 million people. This means that one must have about 1.93 billion doses of vaccine to immunize everyone in 12 months, or 5.4 million doses per day. The production capacity of the two main private vaccine manufacturers in India is limited to 3.8 million doses per day.

The miserable toll of India's vaccination campaign is a direct result of the Modi government's desire to make it a means of advancing the economic and geopolitical interests of the ruling elite, and not to protect the population from the deadly coronavirus. Its determination to rely solely on private companies, even if these lack the production capacities necessary to supply the Indian population, stems from the relentless pursuit of investor-friendly policies by the entire political establishment. over the past three decades.

Recourse to the private sector for the distribution and administration of vaccines constitutes an additional obstacle to the vaccination of a large part of the population. After the central government negotiated the purchase of 50 percent of the total vaccine doses purchased, which were reserved for people aged 45 and over, it let states and private hospitals negotiate their own terms. with private manufacturers for 25 percent each. SII and Bharat Biotech had free rein to demand the prices they wanted.

The result of this arrangement is that a disproportionate amount of India's vaccine production goes to large private hospital groups, which are willing to outbid the states. Four major healthcare groups, Apollo, Max, Fortis and Manipal, claim the lion's share of vaccines, according to a Times of India report . These vaccines are, in turn, overwhelmingly intended for the wealthiest segments of the population who can afford the exorbitant price of 1,000 to 1,200 rupees that private hospitals charge patients on average per dose.

On the other hand, the rural population, which is facing a sharp increase in infections, is being sidelined, as large private hospitals are hardly present in rural areas. While 30 percent of residents of urban districts had received a first dose of the vaccine by May 14, only 12 to 15 percent of residents of rural and semi-rural districts had received a first injection.

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