Launching the COVID vaccination drive on January 27, Prime Minister KP Oli made a chest-thumping claim that all Nepalese citizens would be inoculated “within three months”. Fast forward to May 2021, around 4% of the population has been vaccinated. Ineffective management of the logistics and administrative aspect of the vaccination campaign was largely a sign of the authorities’ neglect in using the borrowed time, judiciously. Consequently, the efficacy of the vaccination campaign was not even remotely close to what the PM boasted and now with another prohibitory order, the inoculation drive has come to a halt.
When the cases were falling and vaccines had just arrived, the government had ample opportunity to scale up the vaccination. But despite having thousands of Chinese vaccines in stock, the government was not able to roll them out at a satisfactory pace. Only 23 immunization centers operated to administer the vaccines. Along with it, slow rationing of vaccines for first essential workers and then for the old age group kept out a large number of the population from getting the jabs. This was necessary for an equitable distribution of vaccines catering to vulnerable populations. However, to fight the pandemic it was imperative to immunize as many people as possible. The need to act aggressively for mass vaccination is crucial ahead of consecutive waves, mostly due to the possibility of more dreadful virus variants.
So, if the government did not have enough resources to mobilize the vaccines at a high speed, what could have been its next best alternative?
A lesson could be learned going back to the initial phase of COVID’s first wave in Nepal. In response to the failure of the government to ramp up the PCR tests, the government decided to allow private laboratories to conduct the tests. The rapid expansion of laboratories for increased testing led to new laboratories being established with a current number of 47 in the public sector and 35 in the private sector. A ministerial-level report on “COVID-19 lessons learned” iterates that the emergency response requires rapid mobilization of available resources and collaborations between the public and private sector.
Private intermediaries like hospitals, pharmaceuticals are efficient in decentralizing and distributing the medicines as they have the incentive and are equipped with the required infrastructure. Whereas, while free vaccines by the government paint a rosy picture, their distribution through a centralized bureaucratic system impedes the process when the need of the hour is speed.
Accordingly, the government can facilitate self-paid vaccination with price regulation by those who can afford it while not compromising the ability of those who cannot afford it. With plenty of immunization centers, not only long queues could be cut short but also there would be an easier hassle-free way for the vulnerable population to get the jabs, in contrast to recent situations where people queued up for hours and then returned back home when vaccines for the day abruptly finished.
As long as the government does not provide a parallel avenue for distribution of vaccines through private intermediaries, the distribution will not catch up with the supply of vaccines. The market allocation of vaccines might not be perfect but it will definitely outperform the alternative government rationing.
Now, we are seemingly at the dawn of new months-long lockdown. Along with internal politics, Nepal seems to have caught up in vaccine geo-politics as well. Vaccine distribution has been put on hold with around 500,000 doses of the Chinese vaccine lying idly in the government’s stock.
As the impending disaster raises its head, we have neither prevented it nor can provide treatment against it.