The COVID-19 vaccination drive in Tamil Nadu is being suspended from time to time due to frequent supply shortages from the central government. As on July 1, only 4.4% of the state’s population had been vaccinated with both doses.
Overall, 1.56 crores doses have been administered in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, Maharashtra leads the vaccination drive in the country with 11.79 crore total doses.
Health experts have repeatedly stressed on the repercussions of slow vaccination drives and the setback of inoculating only a portion of the population.
The state health minister M Subramanian recently declared that Tamil Nadu has the capacity to administer more than two crore doses of COVID-19 vaccines a month but supply-side constraints prevent it from vaccinating people faster.
With the increased demand for vaccines, there are reports that the government owned vaccines are illegally being sold off to private hands at the local level.
IS THE CENTRE BEING BIASED?
Tamil Nadu is lagging behind other larger states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar in the COVID-19 vaccination drive. Does this mean that Tamil Nadu is being discriminated against by the central government?
In fact, there seems to be little clarity on what basis the Union government is distributing the available vaccines to the states. As and when there is pressure from states, the vaccine stock to the respective state increases, especially with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin pressing the Centre to increase vaccine stock for Tamil Nadu.
However, experts are certain that such an outlook is a diversion tactic and people should also look at the larger picture.
"We have so few doses of vaccine, to fight amongst ourselves saying 'one state got more, another got less' is a deviation from the larger picture,” said Dr K Kolandasamy, retired director of public health (DPH).
He explained the larger picture as, “We should focus on shifting vaccine patents from private hands and to bring it under state control and also to demand government institutes to start producing vaccines. Simultaneously, while prioritising vaccines to the vulnerable population we should increase our efforts to delay and blunt the third wave.”
Dr Thirunavukarasu, Virologist at Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College Hospital, said, "Health infrastructure is one of the best in Tamil Nadu, it is as good as Kerala. The state has the most number of hospitals and it has one doctor for every 500 people, as opposed to the national average ratio of 1:1000. The state is also known for medical tourism. But, we are stuck because of a shortfall in vaccine supply.”
He added, “With respect to population density and area, Tamil Nadu is bigger than Gujarat".
VACCINE BLACK MARKET?
Complaints of vaccines being diverted to the black market persists in the state, particularly in Coimbatore where the demand is high as it continues to record the maximum number of daily cases in the state.
A concern raised by Vinothkrishnan Venkatasalapathy, a resident of Coimbatore, on social media over his father's experience at the Kovilpalayam government hospital reads, "After 100 persons they stopped vaccination, saying the doses got over. Around 10 people, including my dad, protested against it asking what happened to the 50 remaining doses. After an hour, all protesting people were given one injection.” Vinothkrishnan is doubtful whether it was really the second dose that was administered to his father.
He further added, "My friend is running a physiotherapy centre in Coimbatore and he said he is giving 40 doses per week at Rs 600. We have to give Aadhaar details by WhatsApp and book it. Since we are not sure of my dad’s second dose, I booked it and he got his second/(third?) dose of Covishield… Next day he received his vaccination certificate. But the certificate says that the vaccination Centre was Somanur PHC".
This raises concern over whether PHCs are illegally selling government vaccines to individuals allowing them to organise vaccine camps at a lower price than the private hospital rate of Rs 850 per dose of Covishield.
Many others have also pointed out that the number of tokens distributed at vaccination centres are not the same as the number of vaccines announced for that particular centre.
Vinay Kumar, Deputy Director Health and Family Welfare Department, said, “We are giving the vaccination based on the 21 priority groups. We are not denying vaccines to anyone above the age of 18. We are also encouraging industrial establishments to run vaccination drives”.
When asked about the vaccine black market, he said, “Only those registered on the CoWin app get vaccinated and we have a strong database of those getting the vaccine. For the vaccines allotted to the private hospitals, we closely monitor the process to ensure no one is overcharged for the Covishield and Covaxin doses.”
REPERCUSSIONS OF THE PRESENT TREND
Tamil Nadu has an adult population of 5.8 crores and at the current slow pace, it is predicted that it would take three years to vaccinate the entire population.
Speaking on the importance of vaccination as a public good, Dr Sundararaman, Global Coordinator of the People’s Health Movement, said in a recent Tamil Nadu Science Forum lecture that “if a section of the population is vaccinated and not the rest, the virus would continue to affect the entire population. Mutant strains would develop and the vaccines may not work on even those who are vaccinated.”
Thirunavukarasu said, “It looks like easing lockdown restrictions from time to time is nothing but a measure to create herd immunity when we are out of vaccines to do the job. Of course, it could get dangerous as the Delta variant gets more virulent.”
Certain positive trends in Tamil Nadu is that priority is given to Chennai, the densely populated metropolitan region, as it has vaccinated 12% of its eligible population (people above 18 years of age), one of the highest among large metropolises. Also, the mountainous Nilgiris district on June 30 achieved 100% vaccination of its tribal population while overcoming several challenges. However, the industrial belt in the Western districts of Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode are facing a crisis.