COVID-19 in India: Are unvaccinated Indians making the new wave worse?

There’s some confusion over whether the current slow but steady rise in COVID-19 caseloads in India and other places in Asia count as a full-fledged ‘wave’, but there’s no doubt about the fact that the pandemic won’t be left behind… yet.

Seeing the daily figures in India creeping up — more than 11,000 cases recorded in the past 24 hours, and an active caseload close to 50,000 — one wonders if the baffling Indian reluctance to be vaccinated, even when vaccines were made abundantly available by the Government of India (GoI), could have something to do with this very unwelcome uptick.

An estimated 100 million people in India have skipped their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Adobe Stock

Let’s look at the numbers. As per the GoI data available till April 14, 2023, the total number of vaccine doses administered in the country until now is 2,206,625,120 (more than 2.2 billion). Given that the population of India is at least 1.35 billion, full vaccination (two doses) of the entire population would require 2.7 billion doses to be administered. After filtering out all the people who could not take the vaccine for medical reasons or for logistical difficulties, there’s still a massive unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated segment of people in India.

There was never any vaccine shortage. GoI made a huge amount of vaccines available, but people soon got complacent and stopped coming back for their second dose. By December 2021, the Serum Institute of India, which had been making the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine under the name Covishield, stopped making it. Bharat Biotech, which was making Covaxin, stopped in early 2022. The latter told the media that it had suffered heavy losses because unutilised stocks of 50 million doses of Covaxin had expired.

In view of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the Serum Institute of India has restarted making Covishield. Company CEO Adar Poonawalla said on April 12, speaking to the Press Trust of India, “Just as a precaution, at risk we have done it, so that people have Covishield as a choice if they want it.” He also said that the company had 6 million booster doses of Covovax vaccine ready, “but the demand is exactly zero at the moment”.

It beggars belief how such a large number of Indians refused to get fully vaccinated, even when hospitals were stocked with vaccines and the staff sat there waiting for vaccine-takers.

Given the public rage directed at the Government of India during the second wave of COVID-19 in the country, in the first half of 2021, when hospital beds were like gold dust and demand for oxygen outstripped supply, one would imagine that people would eagerly come forward to be vaccinated as soon as affordable vaccines, or even free vaccines (at government health centres) began being offered.

However, as per survey results released by the online community Local Circles in April 2021, about 23 per cent Indians still looked at vaccines with suspicion, though the vaccine hesitancy rate was dropping over the months alongside the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Why the first, but not the second?

The most curious case was of Indians who took the first dose, presumably overcoming their fear of this very scary thing called “a vaccine”, but never bothered to take the second.

A Health Ministry statement in October 2021 said: “A sizeable number of beneficiaries who are eligible have not received their second dose… It was pointed out that many states have adequate doses to vaccinate those people who are awaiting their second dose. [The] Government of India is in a position to provide additional vaccine doses… so that they can complete the aforesaid task.”

In November 2021, it was reported that 100 million Indians had skipped their second dose. The figure was trackable since the Co-Win app of the Government of India recorded each individual’s first and second vaccination date and linked it with the individual’s biometric data, represented by the Aadhaar number. That corresponds to the figure of wasted vaccine doses — also about 100 million — reported in September 2022.

The result of this mulish refusal of many Indians to get fully vaccinated was soon evident. In March 2022, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said that 92 per cent of the deaths related to COVID-19 in the first two months of the year were of unvaccinated patients. ICMR also said that among fully vaccinated people, only 10.2 per cent succumbed to the disease, and that, too, mostly because of co-morbidities.

Putting these facts together, it would seem that if COVID-19 looks like a matter of concern again, the common people who skipped vaccination must take a share of the blame. Before judging the state machinery as guilty of not doing enough, it would be pertinent to ask oneself: why did I not do the only thing I needed to do, which was to take the shot?