New Delhi: As governments democratic and authoritarian begin the process of vaccinating citizens against COVID-19, India has emerged as perhaps the first – and so far, only – country in the world whose leader is using vaccination certificates to promote his own politics and cult of personality.
Provisional certificates issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, through its COVID Vaccine Intelligence Network (Co-WIN) platform, to all those vaccinated carry a prominent strip at the bottom with the photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with exhortations in English (“Together We Will Defeat Covid-19”) and Hindi (“davai bhi aur kadai bhi“, “medicines as well as rigour”).
Each certificate also includes the beneficiary’s basic details, the name of the vaccine candidate administered (Covishield or Covaxin), the location of the dose and the batch number and due date for the second dose. Below the Modi banner, Co-WIN lists a helpline number in English and Hindi.
One resident of Puducherry posted his certificate on Twitter along with words of praise for Modi: “Sir Modi jee knows what to do, when to do, how to do”.
The Wire has been able to confirm with others who have received vaccinations that Modi’s photograph and message is affixed to all their certificates.
India’s vaccination certificates are in stark contrast to the certificates or cards that the US, Israel and some other countries have issued to those who have received their prophylactic jabs.
For example, a syndicated photograph of speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s certificate only shows a logo of the US Centres for Disease Control, plus information about the vaccine dosage, schedule and logistics. Another issued by Israeli authorities in December 2020 is similarly bare. The UK’s National Health Service vaccination card is even smaller, about the size of a business card, and whose only image is of a crown.
In India, the attempt to use COVID-19 vaccinations for political gain first became evident during the Bihar assembly elections last year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said it would vaccinate everyone in the state free of cost if it won the election. Experts at the time had questioned the propriety of offering vaccines at no cost only in exchange for votes. The promise was especially controversial because vaccination policy in a pandemic has to be nationally determined and not driven by local or political considerations.
The use of Modi’s photograph on the vaccination certificate is also being seen by the opposition Congress as an attempt to influence voters. In fact, before the civic body polls rolled around in Gujarat, the Vadodara Congress chief had written to state election officers last month alleging the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) violated the Model Code by displaying Modi’s pictures on the Co-WIN app and on the provisional certificates. Indian Express quoted additional district collector D.R. Patel as acknowledging the complaint “had substance and will apply to the entire state” and that his office would write to “district and civic body health departments, notifying that they can’t use the current form of the certificate and the application.”
The Election Commission is likely to be petitioned again as it has scheduled state elections in the key states of West Bengal and Assam from March 27, and in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala from April 6. The Model Code of Conduct enters into force the day after the commission announces the election dates – which it did on February 27.
One of the code’s stipulations is that “the party in power, whether at the Centre or in the State or States concerned, shall ensure that no cause is given for any complaint that it has used its official position for the purposes of its election campaign”.
Of the five states in question, Kerala has been reporting a substantial fraction of new COVID-19 cases that – at the national level – seem to threaten what had until January 2021 seemed like a faltering epidemic. West Bengal used to be a problem state last year, when its case load rose quickly even as its testing rates dropped. Tamil Nadu recently announced that it would extend its lockdown until March 31.
Prime Minister Modi flagged off the government’s vaccination drive on January 16 using funds from the opaque PM CARES fund, and on the back of controversial approvals from the national drug regulator. The first phase was earmarked for vaccinating 300 million frontline and healthcare workers through a nationwide vaccination apparatus set up by the government.
The drive enters a crucial new phase today, with implications for the state elections as well: the health ministry has announced that Co-WIN will be open for registration from 9 am for anyone aged over 60 years or those over 45 years with comorbidities relevant to COVID-19 at a location of their choosing. Vaccine recipients will also have the option to opt out if they are assigned a vaccine they are not comfortable receiving.
According to NDTV, the government has designated over 10,000 private hospitals enrolled with the PMJAY (Ayushman Bharat) scheme, those associated with state-level schemes plus 600 Central Government Health Scheme hospitals to administer vaccines. Vaccines received through government facilities will be free and those being availed through private hospitals will entail a fee, which the Government of India has capped at Rs 250.
In this phase, another 100 million to 270 million people are expected to be vaccinated, according to two estimates, and Co-WIN will continue to be the coordinating tool. It’s not yet clear how the logistics of this phase will affect those of its predecessor, which had already shown signs of missing its July 2021 target.