Politics of covid vaccines

If outbreak of coronavirus in China town of Wuhan and later becoming epicenter of the pandemic brought the world’s most populous country into disrepute, a mad race has surfaced amid the crisis among nations to beat each other in the science of vaccine. Even as China, Russia and the West have come out with vaccines against the virus, there is transparency deficit, which is marring the global acceptance of the vaccine. Amid this scenario, India rolling out two brands of the Covid protection vaccine, Covishield and Covaxin, are expected to be on the lines of the established scientific protocols. Notably, India is at No.2 in the list of worst-affected nation after the US and more than 10 million people have contracted Covid-19 infection so far.

The announcement of two brands of Covid protection vaccine has triggered a nationwide debate raising fingers on the ways and means approvals have been granted to these products. Various media reports quoting a national network of nongovernment organizations call it “public rollout of an untested product.” Some have questioned the approval of critical phase three trial data, which isn’t yet available.

India has a pivotal role in controlling the pandemic and rolling out approved vaccine based purely on the lines of established scientific protocols cannot be overlooked. Covid protection inoculation drive to its 1.3 billion is going to be a deciding factor to control the pandemic. If the vaccine falls victim to politics, it’s going to shake the confidence of the people with a huge question mark on the authenticity of the vaccine brands. So the first basic thing is to exercise transparency in the approvals of the vaccine so that people confidently offer themselves for a shot of life, whether it is Covishield or Covaxin.

Another most important thing is about the ways and means of getting vaccinated. So far, it’s not clear how the vaccination will affect the financials of people. Here financials assume extraordinary significance, especially when Covid-induced lockdowns have battered economy and millions of people have either lost jobs or have witnessed substantial drop in their incomes. Even as we have across statements that the vaccination would be offered free of cost, the ground situation doesn’t support the claim.

Amid this acute financial stress which has hit every sector of country’s economy, it makes a sense for the government to be clear about the financial terms governing the vaccination. When there are financial issues in an emergency situation like the prevailing pandemic crisis and the financial stress emerging as an impediment to fight out this crisis, the role of corporate world assumes extraordinary significance. So, at a time, when India is on the brink of rolling out mass vaccination in the country, the India’s Corporate Inc have to function as an extended arm of the government. A huge chunk of funds can be generated through corporate social responsibility mode of these corporates.

Before deliberating upon the CSR aspect, let me share some ‘strategic thoughts’ rolled out by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). When it comes to COVID-19 vaccination strategy and implementation ina country like India, there is immense scope for collaboration between various private players and public entities across the value chain to augment physical infrastructure, human infrastructure and technology capabilities.

In this regard, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in partnership with Ernst & Young  (EY) have come out with a strategic paper in which they have assessed the private sector’s capabilities and capacities for inoculation and distribution of the vaccine.

The study estimates that India may need 1.3 lakh-1.4 lakh vaccination centers, ~1.0 lakh  healthcare professionals (as inoculators) and ~2.0 lakh support staff/ volunteers for mass inoculation of prioritized individuals (30 crore people as identified by the government, includes healthcare professionals, frontline workers, people above 50 years and also people with comorbidities) by August 2021 and the entire adult population (80 crore) by the end of 2022. To meet the demand of 1.3 lakh-1.4 lakh centres, ~60% of the existing public health infrastructure will have to house a vaccination center.

The paper further states that potential engagement model between public and private healthcare players is likely to emerge to bridge capacity gaps across the value chain of COVID-19 vaccination plan.

Now, let’s have a look at the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The core concept of the CSR is structured around the belief that businesses have a sense of responsibility towards society and the people from whom they derive their profits. In a scenario where economic integration and social inclusion are vital forces to drive growth and development, CSR serves as an integral part of corporate world.

Even as in developed nations, the CSR aspect of the corporate world is not without a suspicion in the eyes of common people, it has gained traction in recent years in India and grew (and continues to grow) stronger in 2020 with the Covid-19 crisis. Earlier, in India, CSR was purely a philanthropic activity, but not deliberated and documented. It got a new facelift when the Companies Act 2013 brought the idea of CSR to the forefront through its disclose-or-explain mandate with community at the centre point of all activities.

India enjoys the distinction of being the first country to impose a statutory obligation of CSR for Its Corporate Inc meeting certain criteria. As per Section 135 of the Companies Act, companies with net worth of ₹500 crore or more, or a turnover of ₹1,000 crore or more, or net profit of ₹5 crore or more, are required to spend 2% of their average net profit of the preceding three years on CSR activities.

By virtue of this provision, India is the only country in the world that makes both the spending and reporting of CSR obligations mandatory.

Remarkably, a data on CSR spend of Corporate Inc falling under the CSR net have spent a total of Rs.71, 277 Cr on 1,05,358 CSR projects till FY2019. The top three domains receiving maximum funding have been education, health and rural development. Another area receiving significant funding is environmental sustainability.

Now this CSR arm of the Corporate Inc can be accessed which would help to overcome the financial challenge of producing the vaccine without any hassles. A one-time tailor-made scheme for corporates can be rolled out to let them spend on distributing and administering the vaccine to the population under the CSR banner.

Given the huge population, geographical spread and overstressed health infrastructure across nook and corner of the country, distributing and administering the vaccine is not only formidable task but involves a huge financial implication. The pandemic has already battered the country’s economy and has left the government with poor financial backup.

In the given scenario, CSR funds of the corporates seem a dependable option. What’s the harm if companies are asked to pool their CSR funds entirely, at least, for this financial year for producing, distributing and administering the vaccine to the whole population? Of course, the law doesn’t allow the companies to spend whole CSR budget in one area. But, what is harm in amending the CSR laws? The most important thing is that such a move is going to save millions of precious lives not only in India but also in rest of the world.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)