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“Free COVID-19 Vaccines, If Voted To Power”: Politics Over Public Health For BJP?

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Who do you think made this statement at the launch of BJP’s manifesto for Bihar assembly polls in Patna on October 22, 2020? If you were wondering whether it is Mr J.P. Nadda, the President of BJP, or Mr Devendra Fadnavis, BJP’s poll-in-charge for Bihar, or Mr Sanjay Jaiswal, BJP’s Bihar State President, then you are mistaken. This was said by Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, BJP Member and current Finance Minister of India.

Let us keep in mind that the Indian economy has contracted by 23.9% in the last quarter (April-June 2020). Are you also wondering whether it is brilliant time management and multi-tasking skills or political propaganda with the Finance Minister of the country (of course, in her role as BJP member) ascertaining the ruling party’ message that the vaccine will be delivered free of cost, if, BJP is voted to power?

The announcement was questioned by several opposition leaders, journalists and citizens who called the announcement ‘populist’, questioned it as to whether being a ‘veiled threat’  amidst an election, raised concerns regarding access to vaccines for residents of non-BJP rules States and slammed it for the blatant politicization of a vaccine when the world is grappling with a pandemic.

The BJP IT Cell Chief, Mr Amit Malviya was quick to respond to these questions by saying that considering ‘Health’ is a State subject, it is within the prerogative of any State government to decide whether they will give it for free or otherwise. His exact response can be seen below.

The 6 Questions That Therefore Arise Are

One: When did the Center share their vaccine distribution plan and declare that vaccines will be provided at a nominal rate to States? Can the ruling party’s IT cell chief’s tweet, after the criticism of the manifesto promise, be treated as policy declaration by the Union Government?

Two: Can the vaccine for a global pandemic such as COVID-19 be equated to “like all programs” vaccines (Re: Amit Malviya’s tweet) and be given at a nominal rate? Can India consider making COVID-19 vaccines free for all citizens like Norway and Australia? Amidst high unemployment and economic slowdown, can the government put the onus of paying for the vaccine on the citizens?

Three: When the finance minister says, “As soon as COVID-19 vaccines are available for production at mass scale, every person in Bihar will get free vaccination”, on what basis are people from Bihar being given priority of getting vaccines? What happens to people from other States? Earlier this month itself the Union Health Minister had rightly so shared that “priority will be given to frontline health care workers” and irrespective of their paying capacity. So, have the upcoming elections changed the priorities of the government wherein the political privilege lies with the people of that State instead of ‘COVID-19 warriors’?

Four: How correct is it for the Union Finance Minister, who is responsible for GST compensation disbursement to States (which is already under controversy) which is essentially a chunk of the States revenue source, especially in the wake of economic slowdown and revenue losses for the States as well, to announce that if voted to power, the vaccines will be provided for free? Where will the funds come from?

Five: Is it ethical to make free vaccination for a disease whose severity and spread has led it to be categorized as a pandemic and continues to affect lives and livelihoods across the world, as a manifesto promise?

Six: The last but most important question is that amidst a global pandemic, shouldn’t it be the centre’s responsibility to ensure that there is a uniformity in accessibility, availability, and affordability of the COVID-19 vaccine across States? After all, the right to health is integral to the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The first phase of polling in Bihar begins from October 28 and the counting is slated for November 10. Some of the other states where elections are due within this year or mid-next year include bye-polls for 28 assembly constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam, amongst others. However, as expected, the promise of “Free COVID19 Vaccines” follows the ‘chronology’ of elections, with similar declarations being made by Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh (BJP ruled state) and Tamil Nadu (ruled by BJP’s ally AIADMK).

Would the Republic like to know whether once a vaccine is approved for use, will we have ‘One Nation, One Vaccine’ or not?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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