The prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has accused the opposition, especially the Congress party, for increasing vaccine hesitancy in India during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Ministers and other members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and supporters of the government have said that the Congress tried to ridicule the Covaxin vaccine. The union government has heavily promoted Covaxin as an indigenous solution since it was developed entirely by the Indian company Bharat Biotech. It also blamed the Congress for trying to sow doubt about COVID-19 vaccines in the minds of people. In January 2021, Harsh Vardhan, who was then the union health minister, said that “vested political interests” were spreading vaccine hesitancy. A few months later, in April, he claimed that the Congress had been spreading vaccine hesitancy throughout the pandemic.
The Modi government has been quick to point out, and rightly so, that India has not had a history of vaccine hesitancy. What it has refused to acknowledge, however, is that its lack of transparency, unreasonable requirements for access and flip-flops on vaccine policy have been the largest contributors to vaccine hesitancy.
In 2012, the World Health Organisation established the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation and a working group on vaccine hesitancy. In 2014, SAGE working group produced a report that defined vaccine hesitancy as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services.” The report noted that vaccine hesitancy is complex and context specific, and varies across time, place, and vaccines. Growing vaccine hesitancy in India is a multi-dimensional problem and more complex than the conspiratorial narrative of a political sabotage of the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive.
On 21 June, India administered 81 lakh doses of COVID-19 vaccines across all states and union territories— a 62 percent rise in the vaccination rate in a single day. The government and its supporters vociferously celebrated the milestone. They gave credit for this success to the revised vaccination policy that allowed free vaccination without pre-registration on the Co-Win app for all adults in state-run vaccination centres. But the government made the policy revision only after pressure from the Supreme Court, civil society and experts who questioned the inclusivity and equity of the previouspolicy under which 50 percent of vaccines were reserved for sale by private players and digital registration was mandatory.
The new policy that Modi announced on 7 June increased government procurement up to 75 percent and reserved 25 percent of India’s vaccine supply for those who could pay and chose to pay. But the much-celebrated revisions still failed to address issues of equity and profiteering in India’s vaccination programs. Vaccine access is still far from universal. Estimates show that Indian COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers continue to make profits as high as 4000 percent with the current policy.