India’s vaccinations hit record with free Covid-19 shots as Modi hails yoga 'shield'

People take part in a yoga session at a park in Amritsar, India, on June 21, 2021.
People take part in a yoga session at a park in Amritsar, India, on June 21, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP, REUTERS) - India gave out a record 5 million vaccine doses on Monday (June 21)  under a federal campaign to inoculate all adults for free after weeks of criticism that a chaotic rollout had worsened a second wave that killed hundreds of thousands.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday also kicked off a muted International Yoga Day hailing the practice's "protective" properties against the virus.

Earlier this month, Modi said the government would buy 75 per cent of all vaccines from drug makers and distribute those for free to states, which along with private hospitals, had earlier been buying shots for people aged 18-45. 

“It marks the beginning of the end of adversities related to Covid-19 in the country,” Giridhara Babu, a member of the Indian Council of Medical Research, the country’s main health research agency, told Reuters. 

Since May, widespread shortages worsened a divide between urban and rural areas, as many younger people in cities turned to private hospitals, paying between US$9 and US$24  (S$12-S$32) a dose. 

That drew criticism that millions were vulnerable to infections, particularly in the countryside where two-thirds of the population lives.  Experts have warned of a potential third wave as only about 5 per cent of all 950 million eligible people are fully inoculated with two doses even as daily infections have fallen this month.

Over the past 24 hours, India reported 53,256 infections, the lowest since March 24.

Infections hit a peak of about 400,000 a day in May and deaths soared to around 170,000 in April-May. 

India, with an overall case load of 29.9 million, is second-highest globally behind the United States. 

And as most cities have begun lifting lockdown curbs, experts have cautioned that a swift reopening could complicate a vaccination programme that needs to be at least four times faster. 

India has administered nearly 275 million doses, according to Our World in Data and over the past 30 days, India has administered an average 2.7 million doses a day.  The country is using domestically made doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and Indian company Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

The Indian government is attempting to secure foreign vaccines such as Pfizer and has waived strict rules to allow quicker imports. 

In the western state of Maharashtra, hardest hit by the second wave, authorities said shortages persist and older age groups between 30-45 would be a priority. 

“We have enough stock that will hopefully last us for the next three to four days, but have no visibility on stock supplies after that,” Santosh Revankar, a senior health official in Mumbai’s civic body, told Reuters. 

In New Delhi, city authorities criticised the federal government for inadequate supplies. 

The free roll-out came as Mr Modi marked the annual Yoga Day event with an early morning address to the nation as it emerges from the surge, saying that the practice had again proved itself to be a source of "inner strength".

"When I speak to front-line warriors, they tell me that they have adopted yoga as a protective shield in their fight against coronavirus. Doctors have strengthened themselves with yoga and also used yoga to treat their patients," Mr Modi said.

Public parks were re-opened in Delhi on Monday just in time, but the number of events for Yoga Day was cut back around the country for the second year running because of the pandemic.

Yoga Day — proposed by Mr Modi and adopted by the United Nations in 2014 — is observed mostly in India, but also worldwide on the Northern Hemisphere's longest day.

Throughout the pandemic, India's government has touted yoga and herbal medicines — sales of which have boomed — as protection against the virus and to give relief to people who are infected.

But evidence is scant and the claims have faced pushback from India's doctors, who wore black armbands last month to protest against Baba Ramdev, a guru with ties to the Modi administration who has said yoga can cure Covid-19.