India is caught in a massive vaccine shortage amidst the second wave of the Covid19 pandemic, with a daily death count exceeding 3,000 plus for almost a month.

Bodies floating down the Ganges, mass burials because families can’t afford elaborate religious rituals to avoid more infection, queues for vaccines overlooking Covid social distancing norms are some of the telling images of the second wave.

Even Modi’s former principal secretary Nripendra Mishra has today blamed the second wave on ‘premature abandonment of caution’.

Most states have had to stop vaccination for the population aged under 44.

The shortage has led to repeated increase in the gap between the two mandatory doses of the Covishield, the local name for the World Health Organisation approved Oxford and AstraZeneca’s vaccine. That has left many who got their first dose in an endless, often traumatising wait.

The extent of the crisis has forced Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to accord top priority to secure more vaccines for India during his latest US visit.

Even for a competent diplomat like Jaishanker, this may turn out to be almost an impossible task because Biden like his predecessor is on an “America First” mode and US vaccine makers are left no room for any early despatch for vaccines to India anytime soon.

What a slap on Modi’s tall claims of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” and “India the Global Pharmacy”, his American woes caused not the least by his “Ab Ki Bar, Trump Sarkar” that was tantamount to campaigning for ‘my good friend Donald’ that may explain the Democrats taking on his regime so often on human rights religious freedom and so much else.

But as poor Jaishankar and his diplomats scout the world for vaccines, Indian data shows an inexplicable mismatch in total production of the jabs in the country and their administration. It is also giving rise to serious questions about the vaccines that are seemingly disappearing on their own!

The mismatch first became known on May 24, 2021 when the Union Government told the Kerala High Court in an affidavit that the actual vaccination in the country was 57% below production.

The daily production of the vaccines in the country stood at about 2.83 million as against only 1.2 to 1.3 million doses being administered per day. It is evident from the numbers that only 43% of the doses produced in the country a day are reaching the people with no account of the remaining 43%!

The Modi Government had then informed the court that India was producing 85 million doses of both Covid vaccines approved in India.

The vaccines are Oxford AstraZeneca’s WHO approved vaccine locally manufactured and known as Covishield by Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin which is still seeking WHO approval for emergency use.

Of these, the government claimed, Serum Institute was producing 6.5 million a month while Bharat Biotech produced 2 million.

The government also told the court that both were ramping up the production.

Bharat Biotech’s own statements also corroborated the claims in the affidavit. Back in April, Krishna Ella, the company’s CMD had asserted that the company had produced 15 million doses of the vaccine in March, would produce 20 million in April and would further ramp it up to 30 million in May.

Unfortunately, the court surprisingly did not grill the government on the mismatch at that time , though it should have and asked the government what was happening to the rest of the jabs!

The facts have just got even murkier by the revelation that Bharat Biotech did produce at least 85 million doses of Covaxin but the data shows that only 20 million of the same have been administered.

Even if one takes into account the export (and also sale) of about 6.6 million vaccines to other countries under the ill-fated Vaccine Matri (vaccine friendship) diplomacy of the government of India from January to March, numbers do not add up.

To begin with, most of the exports of the vaccine consisted of Covishield as it had already secured WHO’s Emergency Use Approval unlike Covaxin for which there were few takers.

Till date, only 11 countries have given approval to the use of Covaxin. They include Iran, Philippines, Mauritius, Mexico, Nepal, Guyana, Paraguay, Zimbabwe and, of course, India.

In any case, hit by the second wave itself, the Government of India had cut down on the export of vaccines at the end of March promising to ramp it up in a ‘phased manner’.

Since then, the official position of the government of India has remained the same that it has not banned the exports. It is just that the world media is buying none of that and calling it a ban outright- as evidenced by this DW story titled Africa scrambles as India vaccine export ban bites region.

That said, it is apparent that India had hardly exported any vaccines after March so there is no way that Covaxin doses could have been exported. What then, could explain the inexplicable mismatch between production and administration of vaccines?

The world is getting increasingly anxious about India, and it is not only about the second wave ravaging the country. International Media, governments, business and civil society, all have been asking uncomfortable questions from the Indian authorities on a myriad of issues ranging from the country’s pandemic situation to the growing attacks on the rights in the countries.

It is not for nothing that India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, in USA for procuring vaccines for India, was asked about “Hindutva Policies.” in Battlegrounds series of virtual conversations hosted by former US national security adviser HR McMaster for Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

That someone with a fair idea of contemporary world order could even think of asking that question to the foreign minister of a country battling pandemic should be warning enough for the government of the country.

That display of scepticism is coupled with serious doubts regarding official data on the pandemic and should be treated as a wake-up call by the Modi government.

Rubbishing The New York Times estimates of the actual Covid toll of India being at least twice the official toll and more than 10 times (4.2 million!!!) is easy, but it would not help India’s case and image globally.

The Modi government must immediately put its act together and answer all the uncomfortable questions with honesty. It can begin with answering where the 40 million Covaxin doses disappeared.

It must, as it has serious implications for the country’s capacity to import vaccines from other countries amidst a global shortage hitting the poorest countries the hardest.

If India chooses to wait for someone else asking, why should we give you vaccines when your own are vanishing into thin air, it would be catastrophic for the country’s health care system already bursting at the seams!

Before India rushes to other countries for vaccines, is it not desirable we investigate where our vaccines have vanished.

In our battle against Covid, the Modi government owes the country three major explanations.

One, why did Modi government take 75 to 90 days to wake up to the pandemic threat? China declared the pandemic on 7 Jan last year before which countries like Vietnam closed all air, rail, road and water transport with China.

Four Cabinet meetings failed to review the situation despite repeated reports from Indian Embassy in Beijing to cut off all transport links with China with one senior minister even deriding our diplomats in Beijing for over-reaction.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan refused to accept Covid as a pandemic his February 16 press conference and only on March 18 did Modi finally accept the pandemic was serious. During these months, we had the Namaste Trump extravaganza in Ahmedabad, the toppling of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and much else.

Two, why was the national lockdown announced suddenly on March 22, four days after Modi accepted the pandemic was serious! We know the hardships it caused to migrant labour , rural poor and middle class and the deaths on the long marches back home.

Surgical strikes on your own poor people is something we thought only Roman Emperor Nero was capable off.

Three, why did Modi prematurely announce victory on Covid earlier this year when all experts were predicting a second wave! The dropping of guard and the shift of attention to win West Bengal at all cost helped the virus to return again in a big way and ravage India.

Add to this a fourth explanation Modi owes to his countrymen – where did so many vaccines vanish when his countrymen are running from pillar to post to find them. With only a miniscule percentage of our huge population vaccinated so far, this should be Modi’s focus, not personal image-building.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: sbhaum@gmail.com