'Utterly baseless': Harsh Vardhan slams Maharashtra govt's COVID-19 vaccine shortage claim
The Union health minister also accused the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra govt of trying to cover its 'failures' by spreading panic on vaccines
New Delhi: Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday lashed out at Maharashtra and some other states, accusing them of trying to cover their "failures" in containing the pandemic by making "deplorable" attempts through "irresponsible" statements to distract attention and spreading panic among people.
In a strongly-worded statement, the minister rubbished the Maharashtra government's claim of shortage of vaccines as "utterly baseless", and said the "lackadaisical" attitude of the state government has "singularly bogged down" the entire country's efforts to fight the virus.
"The inability of the Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among the people is to compound the folly further. Vaccine supplies are being monitored on a real-time basis, and state governments are being apprised regularly about it. Allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless," he said.
Vardhan's sharp counter-offensive came hours after Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said many inoculation centres in Maharashtra are being shut due to a shortage of the coronavirus vaccines and that the state now has 14 lakh doses which would only last for three days.
Noting that Maharashtra's "testing is not up to the mark and their contact tracing leaves a lot to be desired", the Union minister said statements made by public representatives in the state about the shortage of vaccines were "nothing but an attempt to divert attention from repeated failures to control the spread of the pandemic."
Noting that the most concerning of all are the statements being made by a section of political leaders asking to open up vaccination to everyone above the age of 18, he said the primary aim of vaccination is to reduce mortality among the most vulnerable people, and enable the society to beat the pandemic.
"So long as the supply of vaccines remains limited, there is no option but to prioritise," he added.
Maharashtra and Delhi are among the states demanding that the age limit for vaccination should be relaxed. From April 1, 2021, those above 45 years are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
In his statement, issued a day ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's meeting with the state chief ministers, Vardhan said, "It is shocking to see how the state government (Maharashtra) is putting Maharashtrians in danger by letting people escape institutional quarantine mandate for the sake of their personal Vasuli (recovery)."
"Overall, as the state has lurched from one crisis to another, it seems as if the state leadership is happily sleeping at the wheels," he said.
About Chhattisgarh, he said regular comments have been made by leaders from the state that are "intended to spread misinformation and panic" about vaccination.
"It would be better if the state government focusses its energies on ramping up their health infrastructure rather than on petty politicking," Vardhan said while flagging "disproportionately higher number of deaths in the last 2-3 weeks" in the state.
Vardhan said, "The state Government in fact refused to use Covaxin despite it being given Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Drug Controller of India. Not only this, by its actions, the leaders of the state government have the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only government in the world to have incited vaccine hesitancy."
He also asserted that the state's testing remains heavily dependent on rapid antigen tests which is not a wise strategy.
He further said many other states also need to bring their healthcare systems up to the mark. "For example, quality of testing needs to improve in Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat," he added.
In Punjab, the high case fatality rate needs to be improved by early identification of those needing hospitalisation, he said, while noting that wearing a mask and social distancing compliance are slack in a large number of states.
There is a lot that needs to be done, and we must do it all with speed and at scale, he said.
"At a time when the country is witnessing a fresh wave of rising COVID-19 infections, I am alarmed to note the fact that many state governments have failed to take appropriate response measures and apply the lessons that the nation has learned over the past one year of handling this pandemic, he said.
Vardhan said when states ask to open up vaccine supplies to everyone over 18, "We must presume that they have done saturation coverage of healthcare workers, frontline workers and senior citizens".
But the facts are altogether different, he said while pointing out that Maharashtra has vaccinated only 86 per cent of health workers with the first dose, while the equivalent numbers for Delhi and Punjab are 72 per cent and 64 per cent respectively.
On the other hand, 10 Indian states/UTs have done more than 90 per cent, he added.
The minister further said Maharashtra has vaccinated just 41 percent of healthcare workers with the second dose, while the same for Delhi and Punjab are 41 percent and 27 percent respectively, though there are 12 Indian states/UTs that have done more than 60 percent.
Among frontline workers, Vardhan said Maharashtra has vaccinated only 73 per cent with the first dose. Equivalent numbers for Delhi and Punjab are 71 percent and 65 percent respectively. There are five Indian states/UTs that have already done more than 85 per cent.
Vaccination of frontline workers with second does for Maharashtra is at 41 percent while for Delhi and Punjab, these numbers are 22 percent and 20 per cent respectively. There are six Indian states/UTs that have done more than 45 per cent, the minister said.
He further said that when it comes to senior citizens, Maharashtra has vaccinated just 25 per cent, Delhi has vaccinated 30 per cent and Punjab has vaccinated only 13 per cent. "There are 4 states/UTs that have already vaccinated more than 50 per cent.
"Doesn't it seem evident that these states are trying to divert attention from their poor vaccination efforts by just continuously shifting the goalposts? Politicizing such a public health issue is a damning indictment of certain political leaders who should know better," Vardhan said.
He further said the Centre regularly counselled the Maharashtra state government, made available all resources and sent central teams for help.
"However, the lack of efforts of the part of the state government is now clearly visible and come to haunt us all," he said.
He further said the Maharashtra government needs to do a lot more to control the pandemic and the Central Government will help them in all possible ways.
"But focusing all their energies on playing politics and spreading lies to create a panic is not going to help the people of Maharashtra," Vardhan said.
The minister said, "in recent days, I have seen with growing dismay a number of irresponsible statements from some state government functionaries in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As these statements have the potential to mislead the public and spread panic, it has become necessary to put the record straight."
Vardhan said throughout the last year, as the Health Minister of India, he has been a witness to the "misgovernance and utter casual approach" of Maharashtra Government in battling the virus and he was constrained to speak out now because "my silence should not be misconstrued for weakness. Playing politics is easy, but improving governance and health infrastructure is the real test".
The toll climbed to 1,64,623 on Sunday with 513 new fatalities, the health ministry's data updated at 8 am showed
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