How we bungled vaccine procurementWe have only ourselves to blame for not being able to get enough Covid-19 vaccines.
On January 21, 2021, the government of India sent 1 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Nepal gratis, the same day that it dispatched 2 million doses to Bangladesh. It took Nepal until the end of February to get a million more doses of vaccines from India. By that time, however, Bangladesh was able to secure 9 million doses. It was not that the Indian government or the vaccine manufacturer—Serum Institute of India—took a special liking to Bangladesh over Nepal. Bangladesh had an ounce of foresight more than we did: They figured that the regular way of doing government procurement was not going to do during this pandemic. The Bangladeshi government went out of its established ways and facilitated a deal between Beximco, a local pharmaceutical company, and the Serum Institute of India to pre-order vaccines. This was in August 2020, before our government had woken up to the possibility that we might have to buy vaccines on our own.
For most of 2020, the Ministry of Health was lost in a make-believe world that the COVAX mechanism would fulfil Nepal’s vaccine needs. Even when we did figure that we needed to reach out to the vaccine manufacturers on our own, we were so lackadaisical that we sent a letter to the Serum Institute of India asking for a quotation and sat back waiting for a response. All the while several countries were lining up at their doorsteps to buy vaccines. And when the Serum Institute conveniently ignored our request, we had the obdurate idiocy to send them another letter asking for a response! When common sense revisited us, and we went to them with money in hand, it was already 2021. By then, we were sufficiently back in line that we could buy only a million doses before India’s vaccine export ban went into effect.
After about July of last year, it appeared increasingly likely that the Oxford vaccine the Serum Institute was manufacturing was going to be effective. Experts who had been closely watching the ongoing development of vaccines tried to convince the government to strike a deal with the Serum Institute and other potential manufacturers so we could get vaccines even before we got any from COVAX. If we had done the political, diplomatic and commercial manoeuvring in August 2020 that we did only in January 2021, we might have been able to vaccinate enough people to prevent the heartbreaking devastation the second wave of Covid-19 has wrought. But we didn’t.
As difficult as sourcing vaccines has been for all countries, Nepal had unique advantages. We have some of the world's largest vaccine manufacturers right next to our doorstep. We have been doing business with these companies for a while now. And while we aren’t Bhutan or Maldives—with less than a million people—we are also not burdened by the kind of large populations that some of our neighbours have, so a few million more vaccines could have meant a lot for us. Despite getting more than 10 million doses of vaccines from India alone thus far, Bangladesh still languishes behind us in per capita shots administered. With that many doses, our vaccine coverage could easily have been one of the best in the world. But we lost that opportunity. Our tendency to make dunces out of ourselves rarely fails to get the better of us.
Now that a runaway second wave of Covid-19 has resulted in untold misery with a nation gasping for oxygen, overflowing hospitals and needless deaths, we are in the unpalatable situation of having to go to the world, begging bowl in hand, asking for alms. Begging every time. And when our friends and neighbours are unable to help us out to the extent we need, we have the gall to wag a moral finger at them. A finger we haven’t really grown.
Not only have we not done enough to help ourselves during the pandemic despite promising starts here and there, we also haven’t contributed enough to the global effort to fight the pandemic. The COVAX mechanism that we were counting on with bated breath until a while ago barely saw any contribution from our side in getting it off the ground. For a while, manufacturers in India were going around looking for financial resources to expand production—we could have joined hands with them then.
Several countries, including South Africa, India and others have been arguing for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and other health technologies since last year, but we have not been seen anywhere in this debate. All through 2020, there was a Herculean global effort underway to test and trial several vaccine candidates against Covid-19. We not only declined to join that global effort to generate a body of knowledge for the betterment of all, but we also blurted out that we were not letting them make ‘guinea pigs out of the Nepali people.’ We are plenty stupid to do that on our own.
Nepal’s problems are our own to solve. We could have done a lot more on our own to source vaccines well in time and prevent this devastating second wave. We can’t always look to other nations to rescue us out of our problems, trying to trigger their moral angst, all the while not meaningfully contributing to the global order. We really aren’t a small country like we think we are. We are the 49th largest country in the world, and it’s time we acted like one.