Conceding that India was in the grip of a serious public health crisis that had surpassed the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday urged state governments to test more even if that meant higher reporting of the infection. Armed with experience of managing the first wave, better health infrastructure and a locally manufactured vaccine, lockdowns should be avoided altogether, the PM told chief ministers at the virtual meet on Covid.
“In the last phase of the infection, we had to impose lockdowns because at that time, we did not have the infrastructure to control the infection: no PPE suits, not enough sanitisers, masks… we are no longer facing those shortages. So micro-containment zones should be the strategy,” he said.
Sounding a note of caution, the PM asked states to check the rise in cases on a war footing, while stressing that efforts must be strengthened in the next three to four weeks. “This time, people are becoming casual. The administration is fatigued and lax…we cannot afford this. Combating this wave needs to be done on a war footing,” he said.
The PM did not directly touch upon the complaint of several states that they were woefully short of vaccines. Instead, he urged young people to go out and spread the word about vaccination, especially among vulnerable groups. Announcing ‘teeka utsav’ (vaccination festival) from April 11 to 14, the PM also asked state governments to involve governors and all tiers of elected representatives in motivating people to follow Covid appropriate behaviour.
Referring to the first wave of Covid, he said that war was won when there was no vaccine. Calling vaccination a long-term exercise, he reiterated the importance of testing along with other Covid protocols such as mask and social distancing.
His comments on ‘teeka utsav’, that will start with Jyotirao Phule’s birthday and end with Babasaheb Ambedkar’s , caused Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (among the chief ministers to have a less than cordial relationship with the Lieutenant Governor) to chuckle and shake his head.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who nearly failed to become an MLA in the mandated six month period of the constitution of the new assembly because of the hurdles placed by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, is unlikely to accept the PM’s suggestion.
He asked states to tighten governance and streamline testing and vaccination while focusing on micro containment zones. “Those who want to do politics will do politics” he said as squabbles between the Centre and many states intensified over vaccine shortage. Several states have demanded more autonomy in the strategy of administering the vaccine while others said they just didn’t have enough stocks.
Health Minister Harvardhan claimed there was no shortage and charged that states had mismanaged even existing stocks: Punjab, Maharashtra and Delhi had been unable to cross even the 50 per cent mark of vaccinating senior citizens as part of the very first phase of insulating the most vulnerable from the infection. However, Odisha said it had been forced to close down 700 vaccination centres as it did not have the stocks; Telangana said it was badly short of the inoculation doses; and Maharashtra elevated the issue to a political one with Health Minister Rajesh Tope asking why the Centre was discriminating against Maharashtra.
Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, UP and Kerala together account for 74.13 per cent of India's total active cases. Two chief minister – Mamata Banerji (West Bengal) because she was busy with elections; and Pinarayi Viajayan (Kerala) who tested positive for Covid on Thursday – did not attend the meeting.
Jharkhand Health Minister Banna Gupta said: "Around 18,27,800 vaccines have been administered as first dose, 2,78,000 vaccines as second dose. We have spoken to Union Health Minister and requested him to immediately provide us around 10 lakh (1 million) vaccines for first dose. We will get it either today or tomorrow (April 9). Around 83 lakh (8.3 million) people need to get first and second doses of vaccine. It means we will need around 1.60 crore (16 million) doses. We are getting it gradually. We do have vaccines available with us but there has been a shortage at some locations. So we have spoken to the Union Health Minister. We have stock for the next one to two days. We have made a request to the Union Home Minister and I am hopeful that he will provide us the vaccine."
The PM’s response to suggestions from several chief ministers - Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, Uddhav Thackeray and Arvind Kejriwal – to allow all people above 18 years of age to get vaccinated--was to first conclude the ongoing round.
The PM asked state governments to scrupulously collect mortality data as this would be an important input into granular analysis of the spread of the infection and help prevent it. But he added that testing was the key. “to contain the virus, we need to contain the human host” he said. The target must be 70 per cent of the population to be put through the RT PCR test. If the infection numbers appeared elevated, this was a sign of coming to grips with the problem, not a function of the performance of the state government, he said.
But the PM said, the most important element in defeating the infection was to ensure people did not lower guard, especially if they exhibited asymptomatic indications.