Amid Another Covid Surge, Govt Has Roped In Pvt Sector For Vaccinations. A Look At The Pros & Cons Of This Pay-For-Jab Model
By Dr Ashok Seth
Just when we thought that we had Covid under control, the number of new cases across the country has started climbing again. Because we cannot resort to lockdown this time, there is greater potential for the second surge to be more deadly and overwhelm our healthcare infrastructure. Clearly, the only real weapon we have against this threat is vaccination.
In India we are lucky to have two vaccines available, manufactured in our own country in large quantities. Exemplary coordination between the Central
and state agencies have led to approximately 1.25 crore healthcare and frontline workers being vaccinated. Daily vaccination numbers are expected to grow further as teething troubles are fixed and vaccine hesitancy decreases. This is commendable, but it may not be enough. To protect India from the real threat of a dangerous second wave, the main strategy has to be to vaccinate the maximum number in the shortest period of time.
This is a formidable task for a population of 130 crore. Out of the healthcare and frontline workers and the vulnerable population who were to be vaccinated by July 2021, only 4% have been vaccinated with the second shot till now. Even if we were to double these numbers, it could take more than a year to vaccinate a mere quarter of the population, by which time this virus and its variant strains could wreak havoc.
It is time to exponentially augment our vaccination drive which is only possible with the participation of the private sector. Let us face it, India’s successful fight against Covid in India set an example of what the government and
can do if they join forces. Whether it was ward beds, ICU beds, or ventilators, the government relied heavily on private providers. After first deciding to test only in government labs, we were only able to get the pandemic under control after private labs joined. And all this happened with a sense of duty as the government-mandated reimbursements were often just about meeting the costs of services. The atmanirbhar agenda which has created a surplus of PPE and N95 masks in India is also a clear example of public-private partnership. The biggest example of this partnership is our vaccine programme — in a few months we could have five vaccines researched, developed and manufactured in India, making it the Covid vaccine hub of the world. Clearly, the trust and bonding between the public and private sector is stronger than ever.
This is the right time to leverage this partnership to augment the vaccination drive given that the initial logistics have been sorted out and vaccination centres are already being run in private hospitals according to government’s norms. Oversight, social responsibility and public confidence have been established now that more than a crore have been vaccinated through government agencies.
Every day I get at least 50 queries from my patients as to when the vaccine will get to them. They are all vulnerable and fearful and I hate to say to them: perhaps in six to twelve months.
Private hospitals and healthcare providers have the ability and infrastructure to vaccinate a large number. The government should waste no time in defining a process of seamless registration through IT and non IT-based pathways. In consultation with private healthcare providers, it should define the price a patient would have to pay for the vaccine.
I can assure you that private hospitals are not looking at it as a way to increase revenues. Most see it as a national and social cause to keep patients safe and for a return to normalcy for the nation, which, at the end of the day, would be the biggest profit for all. The sourcing of vaccination would also have to be defined — whether it should be through the government or directly through the manufacturer at government-applied rates. The great comfort is that there is no shortage of vaccines. In fact, there is unused stock which has allowed the
Serum Institute of India
to export. We need to prioritise our own vulnerable patients who urgently need it, eagerly want it and are willing to pay for it. Those concerned that this will not lead to equitable distribution should remember that vaccine distribution will remain with the government, which will lay down a process to be followed by all private providers.
Finally, the government has taken on a huge financial, social and moral responsibility to vaccinate for free. That is how it should be for health workers, frontline workers and those in the lower socio-economic strata. But those who can afford this vaccine should go to private centres and pay for it just as they did for Covid tests and treatment at government-approved rates. This will take the pressure off the government, in terms of finances and logistics.
( Dr Seth is a cardiologist and chairman of Fortis Escorts Heart Institute)