New Delhi, India

India will provide free COVID-19 vaccines to all adults, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Monday, in an effort to rein in a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and led to the world's second-highest tally of infections. 

Modi's announcement on national television came after weeks of criticism of a bungled vaccine rollout that has covered fewer than five per cent of India's estimated adult population of 950 million. 

India Ahmedabad vaccination

A woman receives a dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, at a drive-in vaccination kiosk in Ahmedabad, India, on 27th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Amit Dave/File photo.

Health experts have warned that vaccination is the only way to protect lives from a third wave of infections after a surge in April-May overwhelmed hospitals in the big cities and in the vast hinterland. 

Modi said the federal government would take over the vaccination programme from the states from 21st June, reversing a policy under which states were running a part of it. 


India - and the world at large - is facing an unprecedented crisis thanks to the coronavirus pandemic with millions being plunged into starvation as a result of the loss of jobs, according to the founder of Christian humanitarian and development agency Gospel for Asia.

"At least in my lifetime I have never seen or heard anything like this happen anywhere in the world..." KP Yohannan said during a recent interview with Sight.

"I would say the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath - both people dying of it and the starvation of millions because of this - has become the most unbearable crisis for people at large and also for our work...This is something really significant and serious and a most important opportunity for us to demonstrate God's love to the people in need."

Yohannan related how Gospel for Asia workers who were involved in distributing emergency supplies of rice and salt and oil to families in India's north came across family with three children who had spent two weeks without any food.

"We brought this food to them and the man started crying and said they as a family, they were going to commit suicide that evening, end their lives, because they couldn't see any hope of surviving," he says.  "OK it's an exceptional story but people are dying everywhere across the shutdown - with no work, nothing."

Yohannan said that in India, as in many other countries around the world, many people are living on only a few dollars a day and that when there is no work, they have no reserves to call upon.

"They have nothing left but to face suffering and poverty has became acute and most unbearable. And that's where we have thousands of our people on the ground bringing food and basic necessities to the people suffering regardless of caste, creed or religion..."

Gospel for Asis has been supplying medical equipment and other urgent supplies - including oxygen - to those impacted by the virus and have been partnering with hospitals in the country's south-west to aid in their response.

Asked about the long-term impact of the COVID crisis, Yohannan recalled how, after the 2002 tsunami "the whole forgot after a few months". But for those who were impacted by the disaster, he said, it's impacts were "long-term - a year, year-and-a-half of suffering".

"It took a huge amount of time and money and agony to bring some kind of...hope..for these people," he said. "The same thing happened in Nepal after the earthquake - the whole world forgot it. But our people had to work continually day and night for a year long just to rebuild some of  the lives of these people. Now it's the same thing with coronavirus...Coronavirus has wiped out everything and there is nothing they can do."

He said that after the initial impact of the coronavirus is past, the loss of incomes and material posessessions, including animals, people have experienced as a result of lockdowns during the coronavirus will have an ongoing impact.

"It's going to take years to rebuild and help people to find hope. And this is the biggest challenge." 


"Whether it is the poor, the lower middle class, the middle class, or the upper middle class, under the federal government programme, every one will get free vaccines," he said. 

Under the earlier policy, the Federal Government gave free vaccines to the elderly and frontline workers, and left state governments and private hospitals to administer doses for a fee to people in the 18 to 45 age group.

State governments were also competing against each other to procure vaccines from local manufacturers as well as foreign firms, with little luck. 

Grappling with acute shortages, several states imposed strict curbs, including wholesale lockdowns, in recent weeks.

Several vaccination centres also shut down within days of the widening of the campaign to include everyone above the age of 18.

"We will increase the speed of procuring vaccines and also increase the pace of the vaccination program," Modi said. 

Last week, the government said it could have as many as 10 million doses each day in July and August, up from just under three million now. 

Some hospitals said a uniform policy to distribute vaccines could ease the burden of procurement and prices.

"The centre would have a lot more clout in dealing with the multi-nationals...rather than individual states or smaller players directly negotiating with these companies," Sudarshan Ballal, chairman at Manipal Hospitals, told Reuters.

India has been inoculating its people with the AstraZeneca vaccine produced locally by the Serum Institute and Covaxin made by local firm Bharat Biotech. It will commercially launch Russia's Sputnik V shots this month.

Modi said the government would allow private hospitals to have 25 per cent of all vaccine supplies but not to charge more than 150 rupees ($US2.06) over the cost of the dose. 

The new policy should help move things faster, an expert said.

"This [centralised inoculation policy] eliminates states having to compete with one another for vaccine supplies, leaving them to concentrate on distributing them rapidly to their populations," Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University in Delhi, said. 

Overnight on Sunday into Monday, India reported 100,636 new infections, the lowest in the world's second-most populous nation since 6th April, and well off last month's peaks of more than 400,000, allowing authorities to re-open parts of the economy.

The financial hub of Mumbai and capital city of Delhi allowed private businesses to bring back 50 per cent of their staff to workplaces and partially resumed public transport.