NEW DELHI: Mansukh Mandaviya is India’s new health minister. Harsh Vardhan’s departure from the post hardly came as a surprise. Most felt that he is being made a fall guy even though the onus of mishandling of the Covid second wave does not stop with him alone.
This was the second stint of Vardhan, an ENT doctor himself, as the Union health minister. Ironically, both ended abruptly. The first lasted only seven months during the first term of the Narendra Modi government in 2014. There is a major difference between the two departures the first was sudden but quiet, the second is seen as a punishment for failing to coordinate better with the states and giving false assurances. At one point before the torrential second wave, Vardhan had said the disease was looking at an “end game”.
Those watching his work closely said the government is aware that the response to Covid-19 management has been inadequate and has led to major dissatisfaction. “In the first wave, the government was unprepared in the beginning but it went somewhat better because of the low number of cases and coordination with states worked fine,” said a member of the national Covid task force who did not want to be named. “However, everything that could go wrong went haywire in the second.
Partly, it was also Vardhan’s fault who did not read the signs well, was not assertive and was confrontational with the states.” Other experts stressed that while the second wave has subsided substantially, there will still be a massive challenge facing the new minister. “This pandemic has broken the trust in the government health system and that trust needs to be brought back,” said health systems and policy specialist Chandrakant Lahariya. “The new minister will need to recommit himself to implement proposals that have been announced in the last 16 months.”
Health economist Rijo M John, who has been monitoring the situation in India, said the major challenge for the health minister will be vaccinating as many people as possible with the short supply and before another wave. “There is also increasing vaccine hesitancy, especially among the elderly. In the interest of limiting the severity of future waves, vaccines may need to be taken to doorsteps.”
‘Needs careful navigation’
Public health researcher Oommen John said: “Legacies of redundant health information systems, lack of data for proactive policy and a large workforce of underpaid health workforce will need to be carefully navigated.”