Chhattisgarh Health Minister T.S. Singh Deo says the Centre has been on the back foot in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic
A day after the Union Government announced a liberalised vaccine policy, making all persons above 18 years eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and giving the States the right to procure directly from the manufacturer, The Hindu’s Sobhana K. Nair spoke to T.S. Singh Deo, Health Minister of Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, who warns that allowing the market forces to decide vaccine distribution could lead to chaos. Excerpts:
What are your initial reactions to the Union Government’s decision to allow COVID-19 vaccination for all persons above the age of 18 years?
Relief! The relaxation of the age for COVID vaccines was long overdue. Chhattisgarh, for example, has already vaccinated 15% of its population in the category of 45 years and above. We would have reached saturation soon in this section. In the last video conference of Health Ministers, I had asked the Union government to give flexibility to State governments, to amend the eligibility criterion.
Phase 3 of the National Vaccine Strategy will enable vaccine manufacturers to sell half their vaccines to the State governments and the open market. Would this give States the necessary flexibility they have been asking for?
This step will lead to more chaos. States will now be competing with each other. Whichever State has more resources and is more enterprising will try to corner more stocks. And States where the vaccine production facilities exist might even put clamps on movement of stock outside of the State, like we have seen in the case of Remdesivir [anti-viral injection]. The Union government should have continued with one point supply, enhancing production capacities and making the distribution system more equitable and transparent. On the Health Ministry website, where today they tabulate the number of active COVID-19 cases in each State, they could have also shown the number of vaccines sent by the Centre and the number of doses administered. You should not decentralise a scarce resource like vaccines.
But didn’t the State governments demand more control and also criticise the Centre for partisan behaviour in favour of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States for distribution of COVID-related medicines and equipment?
Maharashtra and some other States have complained of stepmotherly treatment by the Centre, while I always maintained that the Centre should not indulge in doublespeak and try to create mistrust in the State governments. They should not make tall claims of ‘no shortage of vaccines’. Hearing the Union Ministers’ statements, our constituents ask us why we are not inoculating them if there is no shortage of vaccines. The ground reality is contrary to these claims.
But do you agree to the charge that the Centre has been partial towards BJP-ruled States?
The construction of COVID-19 facilities by the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) in Delhi, U.P., Bihar and Gujarat is a blatant, cold example. Out of the four facilities, two are in BJP-ruled States, and one [is situated] where the BJP is part of the ruling alliance. But then again, Chhattisgarh has achieved 15% vaccination. It would not have been possible without supply from the Centre.
Each State has come up with travel restrictions and “curfews”, a euphemism for lockdowns. Do you believe, with the surge in coronavirus infections, the Centre should have come up with a unified policy?
The Centre has been on the back foot. They have a low capacity to take suggestions and listen to criticism. Just see the way Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan responded to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s letter on Monday. The Modi government was criticised, and rightly so, for the nationwide lockdown that was imposed without due consultations with the States, which led to unimaginable trauma for migrant workers. So now, they have raised up their hands and shrugged off all responsibility. The spread of the pandemic is not uniform and lockdown is not really a solution, but there is a little doubt that it breaks the chain. Wherever the positivity rate goes above 5%, this should be considered. We don’t have any other alternative. Some sort of a unified response would have been better.
Chhattisgarh has been reporting an alarming number of COVID-19 cases. Why this sudden spurt?
We have imposed district-wise travel restrictions. Right now, our positivity ratio is skimming around 28-29% and four cities have reported nearly 40%. We are taking all possible steps. We are an oxygen surplus State, but the problem is with transporting this oxygen. We are currently facing a shortage of jumbo cylinders, for which we have already placed orders. For Remdesivir also we have placed an order, and have been told that it takes about 16-20 days for the production. We are running out of ICU beds. We have urged the Centre to step in but so far the response has not been adequate.
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