When all adults in India became eligible for the Covid-19 vaccination on May 1, Postcard Hotels & Resorts, a b Boutique hotel chain, took action to inoculate its staff. Managers checked the country’s online jab-booking platform, Co-win, to secure appointments. Hotel cars take workers to clinics about two hours away. The company pays for the injections, some of which cost up to Rs1,300 (£ 13) per dose.
Within a week, 200 employees received an initial dose. “We run it like an army operation,” said Kapil Chopra, the company’s founder and chief executive. “I did it for the safety of my team, who were on the line of fire.”
As India rolls out of the Covid-19 wave that has killed at least 140,000 people in two months, many are calling for vaccines as protection against infectious varieties of Sars-Cov-2 which is now spreading across the country.
But in few jabs, capable citizens and powerful companies – and those who work for them – have more access to vaccines, tailored to their ability to pay, their tech savviness and their connections to many private hospitals.
“This is the feudal system in India,” said Leena Menghaney, a public health lawyer. “The rich in India will always get anything first. It’s very elitist… Those with connections and digital equipment, who are educated enough and smart enough to use the system, will be able to get the vaccine.”
India administered 200m doses – or about 14 per 100 people – from mid -January, a sweet step compared to previous vaccination campaigns. India recently inoculated 110m children against polio in just three days.
But the push for India’s Covid-19 vaccine has been hampered by a severe shortage of jabs, stemming from a failure to secure supplies due to a misconception that the virus is under control. The Narendra Modi government only placed the first vaccination order in January – and for only 16.5m doses.
“There is a satisfaction that this epidemic has been eradicated,” said Swarup Sarkar, a member of the Covid-19 taskforce of the Indian Council of Medical Research. “The need for vaccines has not been felt.”
With limited vaccine stocks, India first gave priority to those more vulnerable to severe Covid-19, in line with age and health standards. The government buys vaccines from two in -house manufacturers, and administers them free of charge in public hospitals, or at a price of Rs250 at private hospitals.
But while coronavirus cases – and vaccine demand – hit last month, New Delhi is changing tack. Denying any shortcomings, the Modi government has opened up vaccination to all adults, opting for a “liberalized and accelerated” inoculation strategy.
In it, New Delhi abandons responsibility for vaccinating Indians under the age of 45, and tells states to get jabs for themselves. It also allows vaccine makers to sell 25 percent of their output to private hospitals – at a much higher price.
Harsh Vardhan, the health minister, said the policy would “empower many people to get vaccinated quickly” at their own expense. “Actually, those with the ability to get (jabs) in the private and corporate sector rates will continue,” he added.
Today, private hospitals offer vaccination camps in corporate offices, factories, five-star hotels and elite residential areas, where wealthy Indians and companies can pay about R1,700 for in a jab for themselves and their employees.
Meanwhile, many government vaccination centers, which offer free jabs, have been shut down due to lack of supply. Government clinics in rural areas are flooded with tech-savvy urban youth who use the Co-win app to ensure inoculations, while less sophisticated locals don’t break down.
Experts say that such favoring the wealthy – instead of scientifically allocating scarce vaccines where they are most needed – exacerbates existing social inequalities and violates principles of public health.
“It’s a complete disaster,” said Murali Neelakantan, former general advisor to Cipla, a large Indian pharmaceutical company. “No vaccines are given for free because they are brought by the rich. There is no other part of the world where you can justify any aspect of it. ”