What the government’s vaccine strategy has in common with the Vietnam war

The United States kept fighting the war on the basis of declaring that it was winning it. Sounds familiar?

ByVivek Kaul
What the government’s vaccine strategy has in common with the Vietnam war
Shambhavi Thakur
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The Narendra Modi government has been in a hurry to declare that the war against Covid has been won.

In early April, the prime minister, in a meeting with chief ministers, had said: “We had won the war without vaccines, at a time when we did not even know whether vaccines would come.”

In late January, in an address to the World Economic Forum, the prime minister had said: “Today, India is among the countries which have succeeded in saving the lives of the maximum number of its citizens.”

Of course, this was before the second wave of Covid reached its peak and unleashed destruction across the length and breadth of the country. Meanwhile, in the process of patting itself on the back, the government ignored the fact that large parts of the world had faced a destructive second wave. It also did not order enough vaccines in advance.

India has around 94.3 crore people over the age of 18. Given that two doses of the vaccines that are currently available are needed, and taking wastage into account, if 100 percent of those aged 18 and above are to be vaccinated, close to 200 crore doses will be required.

So, to cut a long story short, in order to vaccinate a significant number of Indians to build herd immunity to prevent the further spread of Covid, a large number of vaccine doses will be required. But the government didn’t order enough doses in advance.

On May 3, the government put out a press release denying a story published in Business Standard that had said that the central government hadn’t ordered vaccines since March. In the press release, the government said that on April 28, orders of 16 crore doses of vaccines had been placed with the Serum Institute of India (11 crore doses) and Bharat Biotech (five crore doses).

It also went on to say that “as of May 2, 2021, government of India has provided more [than] 16.54 crore vaccine doses to States/UTs free of cost. More than 78 lakh doses are still available with the States/UTs to be administered.”

This is around the time when the worst of the second wave of the Covid pandemic was playing out. And up until then, the number of vaccine doses provided to state governments stood at a little over eight percent of the total number (16.54 crore as a proportion of 200 crore doses) that may be eventually required. Only on April 28 did the government order another 16 crore doses.

On June 8, the government said in a press release that it had placed orders of 44 crore vaccine doses: 25 crore doses with the Serum Institute (which manufactures Covishield) and 19 crore doses with Bharat Biotech (which manufacturers Covaxin). It further said that these vaccine doses will be available till December 2021, starting now.

The point being that the central government started procuring vaccines in significant numbers only after the worst of the second wave of the pandemic had become obvious. In a way, this is what happened in the United States towards the end of the Vietnam war – a war that ended up killing many young Americans, in a part of the world they were not familiar with, for a cause they did not identify with.

As Thomas Sowell writes in Knowledge and Decisions: “Many early supporters of the Vietnam war came ultimately to the position that it was not worth the cost, after the full cost had been revealed by time, and that early official estimates of prospective casualties and prospective outcomes were either grossly mistaken or deliberately misleading.”

What does this mean in the context of the central government’s vaccine strategy?

It basically means that the central government started procuring vaccines seriously only after the full cost of the second wave of Covid became obvious. The number of people who got the disease shot up. Many died. Many others ended up spending their savings in fighting the disease. And the economy slowed down.

As Adar Poonawalla, who is the chief executive officer of the Serum Institute, pointed out in an interview to the Financial Times in early May, the government had not placed enough orders ahead of the second wave. “I’m just the manufacturer...I don’t decide these policies,” he had said. This is also obvious, and as argued above, from the numbers put out by the government in the public domain.

The question is, why was the government caught napping? If we go by the principle of Occam’s Razor, the simplistic version of which states that the simplest explanation is usually the best one, those in decision-making positions were busy with the state assembly election in West Bengal and did not take the threat of the second wave of Covid very seriously.

But let’s give the government the benefit of doubt here and assume that there was some thinking going on, perhaps at a relatively deeper level than the Occam’s Razor suggests. Allow me to meander for a bit and talk about the United States and the Vietnam war a little more, before I get back to the point I am trying to make.

The United States became a party to the war in Vietnam, which was geographically very far away, and kept fighting it on the basis of declaring that it was winning it, until it was not.

As Sowell writes: “One index of military success is the number of enemy killed... [Given this] continual criticism of the ‘search and destroy’ missions of the American army in Vietnam did little to change this approach in a war where ‘body count’ was a key indicator, used by the military high command in rewarding and publicising its units' efforts.”

So, what’s the link here? It is possible that when it came to figuring out what the Covid pandemic could possibly unleash, the central government just kept looking at the “mild” impact of the first wave of Covid in terms of the number of cases and the number of people who had died. The point here being that the decision-making in the government, as was the case with the American presence in the Vietnam war, happened by looking at an extremely limited number of parameters and without taking a broader historical as well as the current context into account.

As of March 31, the number of people who had got Covid in India had stood at 1.22 crore, which is a big number in absolute terms, but less than one percent of India’s population. By May 31, the number had jumped to 2.82 crore, a 131 percent jump in a matter of two months. Of course, this comes with the disclaimer that a few states were not reporting their numbers properly and the fact that many individuals would have been asymptomatic, and perhaps had not even realised that they had had Covid. Hence, the actual numbers would have been considerably higher than the reported ones. While the government may not admit to this, it of course realises this.

In looking only at the impact of the first wave, the government perhaps forgot to take into account that other countries had faced the second wave, or that pandemics in the past did not go away with just one wave, or the fact that many countries were not thinking like the Indian government was and were trying to stock up on vaccines by placing advance orders.

The need to pat itself on the back for a job well done, which fed into a constant “all is well” narrative, may have very well led to this extremely limited thinking on the central government’s end and cost the country a precious few months in getting ready for the second wave.

As Sowell puts it: “The point here is to emphasise that the cost of any decision-making process must be assessed in terms of the full consequences entailed by alternative decision-making processes.”

Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money.

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