In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, as India’s COVID-19 crisis continues, we look at what’s holding back the country’s vaccination rollout and how a shift in strategy on distribution and pricing is causing concern. And we speak to a researcher who went hunting for fungi in the world’s largest seed bank.
India’s catastrophic COVID-19 crisis shows little sign of improving. On May 12, the country reported 348,421 new cases and a record 4,205 new deaths from COVID, taking the total number of deaths to over 250,000. Many observers think these official figures could be substantial underestimates as hospitals struggle to provide the sick with oxygen and beds, and crematoriums overflow.
By early May, just over 2% of India’s population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In this episode of the podcast, we look at why it’s currently so hard to get a vaccine in India.
While vaccines won’t solve India’s current healthcare crisis, the experts we’ve spoken to say vaccination is a key part of the longer-term solution. Gagandeep Kang, professor of microbiology at the Christian Medical College in Vellore in southern India, told us the country needs to do better. “We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves in absolute numbers to other countries,” she said. “We should be looking at the percentage of the population that is being immunised, and there we are not doing particularly well.”
Rajib Dasgupta, professor and chairperson at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, explains that the decision to open up eligibility to all adults from May 1 had been held back by a shortage of supply. “In many cities or districts, vaccination programmes have been either put on hold.” He told us that “very little vaccination” is going on among 18- to 44-year-olds, though he expects the situation to stabilise by July.
On May 1 there was also a shift in the pricing structure for vaccines and the overall distribution strategy, with 50% of all vaccines now being distributed via state governments and private providers. R Ramakumar, professor of economics at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, thinks there was a political motivation behind the shift by the government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, which had faced criticism over vaccine shortages. Under the new strategy, he says: “The central government can always say that it is because the state governments did not place orders in time, or did not order adequate vaccines, that you are facing a vaccine shortage.”
And Ramakumar warns that because of the higher prices that are now being charged for vaccines, poorer Indians are likely to be excluded from getting vaccines. “When the question of affordability comes in, it makes the problem of vaccine hesitancy even more acute among the population.”
In our second story, we hear from a researcher who found a hidden world of microscopic fungi growing in the preserved seeds at the world’s biggest seed bank. Rowena Hill, a PhD candidate at Kew Gardens and Queen Mary University of London, explains there’s still a “massive gap” in what we know about fungi. But her new findings are helping to reveal a bit more about the role fungi play in the health of plants, which she likens to the role that the bacteria of the gut microbiome play in our own lives.
And Carissa Lee, Indigenous and public policy editor at The Conversation in Australia gives some recommended reading on a recent series marking 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The Conversation Weekly is produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Special thanks for this episode go to Namita Kohli in New Delhi. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom. or via email on email@example.com. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.
A transcript of this episode will be available soon.