India crossed a remarkable milestone on Thursday in its protracted battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Asia’s third-largest economy, battered by the deadly coronavirus, shot past the 1-billion mark of vaccine doses administered in the country. The milestone is remarkable not just from a public-health perspective, but also for its political and economic implications.
India’s vaccination drive, which began in January, was slammed for its tardy pace and many blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for not placing advance orders for vaccine doses, potentially hurting the capacity-expansion plans of its two main suppliers – Serum Institute of India, which makes Covishield, and Bharat Biotech, which manufactures the indigenously developed Covaxin. If the supply crunch wasn’t bad enough, the triumphalism that was on display during election rallies early in the year, as well as in religious gatherings, worked to convey a false sense of normalcy. Soon, India was engulfed by a disastrous second wave of the pandemic, overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums and leaving families scrambling for scarce medicine and oxygen supplies. Modi’s popularity suffered a serious dent, as revealed by an India Today magazine survey conducted in July.
The all-round criticism jolted the government into action. From a daily average of less than two million doses administered in May, when the second wave of infections peaked at more than 400,000 cases a day, to about 8 million in September, India’s inoculation drive has come a long way. A jubilant Modi tweeted to mark India's so-called vaccine century. “India scripts history. We are witnessing the triumph of Indian science, enterprise, and the collective spirit of 130 crore Indians. Congrats India on crossing 100 crore vaccinations.”
India has seen a steady decline in COVID cases, a result of a combination of natural immunity after exposure to the virus and rapid vaccination. Fears of a third wave, which was expected in October, have proven misplaced. Indeed, COVID-19 in the country has become endemic, experts say, which means we are unlikely to see large flare-ups.
This should give businesses confidence to resume their operations full throttle, as post-pandemic demand for goods and services rebounds. India’s COVID-hit economy, which contracted 7.3% in 2020-21, the worst in four decades, is projected by the IMF to grow 9.5% this year and 8.5% the next. Even as the long-suppressed demand is unleashed, the government’s emphasis on building physical infrastructure and spending on the social sector is set to lend tailwinds to the economy, creating employment opportunities. This is borne out by surveys from several staffing firms. For instance, a report released last month by the Indian arm of the US-based ManpowerGroup said that India Inc’s recruitment outlook for the quarter ending December was the most optimistic in seven years.
As the coronavirus crisis loses its potency and the economy goes on an upswing, a triumphant Prime Minister Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can go to the Uttar Pradesh state polls with renewed confidence. India’s most populous state accounts for the highest number of Lok Sabha seats, sending 80 members to the 543-seat lower house of the national parliament. A victory in state polls next year would boost Modi’s chances of a re-election for a third straight term in the national polls, due in 2024.