Coronavirus Vaccination

India ropes in private sector to speed up inoculation drive

20,000 private, 10,000 public hospitals to help out amid call for more private-sector efforts

An Indian woman receiving a Covid-19 vaccine jab during the vaccination drive at Dasappa government hospital in Bangalore, India, yesterday. Immunisation programmes in India have got off to a very slow start.
An Indian woman receiving a Covid-19 vaccine jab during the vaccination drive at Dasappa government hospital in Bangalore, India, yesterday. Immunisation programmes in India have got off to a very slow start.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

India's vaccination drive is expected to speed up substantially after the federal government roped in the private sector.

It will provide a boost for one of the world's largest immunisation programmes, which has got off to a very slow start. About 20,000 private and 10,000 public hospitals will be administering the vaccine from March 1, according to the government. Previously the drive involved only 10,000 hospitals, mostly public.

Unlike scores of other countries, India does not have a problem with access to vaccines. Instead, its issue is that the roll-out has been too slow. More than 13 million healthcare and frontline workers have been inoculated in a month with vaccine hesitancy and a glitchy app slowing the process. India is using the app to contact beneficiaries and track the vaccines. At the current pace, it would take over three years to vaccinate the population.

Against the backdrop of these concerns, the federal government has now approved large-scale private participation even as the country expands the vaccination drive beyond an estimated 30 million frontline and healthcare workers.

In Mumbai, the state government, fearful of a rise in cases, this week authorised 22 private hospitals to start vaccinating their own healthcare workers, taking some pressure off the overstrained public health infrastructure. "We will go ahead on a larger scale from March 1," said Dr Gautam Bhansali, a consultant physician at Bombay Hospital and chief Covid-19 coordinator for all private hospitals in the city.

India will also allow those who are eligible to buy vaccines at a private hospital. Government hospitals have been offering free jabs.

The price of the vaccine, federal minister Prakash Javadekar said, is under discussion between "the health ministry, manufacturers, and the private hospitals".

India is the world's second-worst affected country by Covid, but has seen the disease decline steadily over five months. Still, that is being threatened by an increase in active cases in some states amid Covid fatigue in the populace. India has approved two vaccines for emergency use, including Serum Institute of India's Covishield and Bharat Biotech's Covaxin.

The Confederation of Indian Industry had urged the government to give permission to allow companies to vaccinate their employees and their families as well as rolling out vaccinations under corporate social responsibility programmes.

"Such a programme could benefit an additional 100 million workers in the formal sector and local communities by providing access to the vaccine," the confederation said in a statement. Indian business tycoon and top philanthropist Azim Premji had suggested 500 million people could be vaccinated within two months with deeper private sector involvement. India has top-quality private health care available for those who can afford it. India's poor and those in rural parts, however, depend on the public health care system, which led to the government doubling health care spending to 2.23 trillion rupees (S$40 billion) in this year's budget.

Mr Arvind Singhal, chairman and managing director of management consulting firm Technopak Advisors, said: "India has been doing in the range of 300,000 to 400,000 vaccines for the last few days. This capacity with private participation can go up to 2 million per day as early as next week. This could result in 300 million people getting vaccinated by June end."

  • 300m

    Number of people India targets to vaccinate by August.

  • >13m

    Number of healthcare and frontline workers vaccinated as of Feb 26

  • 11 m

    Total number of Covid-19 cases.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2021, with the headline 'India ropes in private sector to speed up inoculation drive'. Subscribe