India’s celebration of 1 billion doses: Dubious claims, mixed messaging, definitely premature

The hype around the event risks damaging the very success it aims to celebrate.

WrittenBy:Jammi N Rao
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On October 21, 2021, India’s cumulative count of coronavirus vaccine doses administered officially crossed the one billion (100 crore) mark. In its press release announcing this as a “historic” achievement, the ministry of health referred to a tweet from the prime minister congratulating India.

“India scripts history,” he tweeted. “We are witnessing the triumph of Indian science, enterprise, and collective spirit of 130 Crore Indians.”

In a follow-up press release later that evening, union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya launched a film and song from the Red Fort.

Social media divided along predictable lines. Pro-government commentators, Twitter handles and news media celebrated it with unbridled praise for the government, attributing the “achievement” to Modi’s leadership and vision. Opposition voices pointed out the slow start, the disastrous second wave, and the obvious point that only a third of adults had been given both doses.

The prime minister also marked the occasion with a special address to the nation, an English rendering of which was published in this press release.

Now that the noise has died down, it is time to take a dispassionate look at the data and ask ourselves three questions.

(1) Was it really a remarkable milestone worthy of such a song and dance?

(2) Was the occasion used by the government to blow its own trumpet? And was it to the detriment of serious messaging about the need for continued precautions including vaccination?

(3) Does the government’s publicity stand up to rigorous fact-check?

Let’s take a look.

Targets, milestones and achievements

In an earlier column, I looked at the question of absolute numbers of vaccine doses, the number of people who have had both doses, and the proportion of people who have had both doses. The essential point was that in combating the coronavirus threat, what is important for any country is to protect as fast as possible a sufficiently high proportion of the population with at least two doses of an effective vaccine. Naturally, countries with large populations will need a lot of doses to reach this point than will less populous countries.

By the government’s own data, as of the evening of October 21, a total of 296.25 million Indians had received two doses of a vaccine. Assuming a total population of people aged 18 and over of 850 million, that works out to a coverage of adults of 34.8 percent.

The trouble with the one billion figure is that it sounds hugely impressive until we remind ourselves that the reason India is the only country, other than China, that could possibly have given this number of vaccine doses is because no other country has a population of 1.38 billion people. The next most populous country, the United States, has a population of 331 million people and even if they administered three doses of the vaccine to every man, woman, child, and new-born infant, they still would not touch a billion doses!

So, the milestone of one billion doses is really a function of India’s population. The only other comparably populous country is China (population 1.44 billion) and they have given 2.24 billion doses, and have covered 72 percent of their total population.

Nevertheless, a purely numerically determined milestone could still serve as a useful time point at which to quietly mark the effort thus far and reflect on the task ahead. The fact is that there was never an explicit target of 100 crore doses to be administered by a given date and, for that reason, the triumphalist celebration on October 21 was at best opportunistic and at worst crude propaganda.

Indeed, one could see the celebration as an ill-disguised attempt to erase from memory the record of earlier statements about the Covid vaccination programme. On January 28, 2021, two weeks after the first doses were given, the target announced by the government in an address by the prime minister to the World Economic Forum in Davos was that 300 million Indians would be immunised in the “next few months”.

Assuming that meant two doses each, it would amount to 600 million doses – a milestone that was reached fully seven months later on August 25, at which point the number of people fully immunised stood at just under 137 million (16 percent of the adult population). I leave it to your judgement as to whether seven months is rather more than a “few months”.

On May 28, Prakash Javdekar, then minister for information and broadcasting, said at a press conference that India will vaccinate its entire population by the end of the year.

"India's vaccination will be completed before 2021,” he said. “The health ministry has given a blueprint for how 1.08 billion people, with 2.16 billion doses, will get vaccinated before December 2021.” He even tweeted a clip of his statement.

Going by these pre-announced targets and commitments, any celebration on October 21 was, at the very least, premature.

Mixed messaging

The triumphalist tone of the celebrations ran the risk of derailing the important public health message that a precautionary approach with a continued campaign to ensure further coverage of the population with a vaccine remains as important now as at any time in the past year. Experts, including from the government’s own Niti Aayog, have been warning of the potential for a third wave.

India has been here before when the prime minister declared a premature victory and then disappeared from view during the devastatingly lethal second wave that followed in April and May 2021.

If all that people are told is to celebrate the 100 crore vaccine doses, then the 65 percent of people who are yet to be protected fully, or at all, could be forgiven for thinking that the fight is over. The rest of the world is moving toward a third booster dose; there is even the idea that a full vaccination schedule really should include a booster six months after the second dose. At such a time, it is highly irresponsible for the country’s leadership to celebrate an administratively defined “achievement” that relegates to a footnote the immense task still ahead.

Fact-checking Modi’s speech

The prime minister’s address to the nation repeated factual inaccuracies that Newslaundry has covered earlier. But two new exaggerated claims stand out.

One is that India’s vaccine programme was “science-born, science-driven and science-based”. This is, of course, technically true. But it is true only because no modern vaccine programme could have been anything but science-based. The claim would have made sense if it had at all been possible to even think of making a vaccine without applying advanced science. The prime minister is making a virtue out of necessity.

If anything, the practice of the science of vaccine development and testing in rigorous clinical trials has at times been practised in India with insufficient rigour, especially in the field of regulatory oversight. The claim of being based in science sits uncomfortably with the close association of the previous health minister with the launch of an unproven ayurvedic remedy promoted by the head of a company who disparaged vaccines.

The other is that India’s coronavirus vaccine was given “free of cost”. This message is repeated also in posters and billboards around the country, as if to suggest that previous immunisation campaigns such as smallpox and polio were only available to those who could pay for it. The prime minister himself announced in his earlier address to the nation on June 7 that upto 25 percent of the vaccine production would be allocated to private hospitals and clinics to offer to fee-paying citizens.

The claim that the vaccine was provided free is therefore not only factually incorrect, it is also misleading in that it was paid for with the taxes that citizens paid. The frequent claim of free vaccines carries with it a sinister hint that a system of publicly funded healthcare paid for out of general taxation and “free” at the point of use is not a right that the citizen can expect but government largesse granted on a whim and for which the citizen should be grateful.

Back then to the original question. While the “one billion doses” moment is a milestone because of the nine zeros in a billion, the hype around the event, and the opportunistic self-congratulatory use the government made of the occasion, risks damaging the very success it seeks prematurely to celebrate.

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