Corporate Vaccination: Bridging the Gap

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As of July 10, 2021, India has administered around 310 million COVID-19 vaccines. The drive covers the second shot for 5.5% of the population, while 23% have received the first dose. India’s vaccination program, which started in mid-January, has been facing challenges owing primarily to vaccine shortage and infrastructure constraints. These shortages contributed to the country’s deadly second wave of COVID-19 infections, which has delayed recovery with continuing restrictions. India is now aiming to vaccinate the entire adult population by end-2021, for which it would need a total of more than 1.7 billion vaccine dosages. The challenges ahead of this goal are two-fold – the first has to do with acquiring the required number of vaccines within the given time, and the second is related to the infrastructure needed to administer the per day required rate of over 8.5 million vaccines. Currently, India is administering around 3.5 million per day. As India slowly recovers from the second wave of infections and vaccine supply picks up, corporate vaccination programs have emerged as a leading enabler in ensuring vaccine access and equity.

On May 27, I finally received my first COVID-19 shot. The vaccine was made possible through an initiative of my company, EY, which in partnership with local hospitals provided vaccines to thousands of its employees and their dependents across multiple Indian cities. This initiative was a major help, considering booking vaccine slots through government portals had become near impossible owing to supply shortages. Meanwhile, my visit to the vaccination center also led to an observation about the corporate initiative. This drive was organized at a large venue to facilitate the inoculation of employees of multiple companies that have tied up with the hospital partner, Apollo Hospitals. And a good part, if not the majority, of those who had turned up for vaccination, were blue-collar workers who don’t have the luxury of working from home and are most likely to catch the virus. When we are reading stories of COVID-19 further widening socio-economic inequality, corporate vaccination drives are contributing towards reducing that gap. As a result, hundreds of thousands of frontline workers are now better equipped to face the pandemic.

Socio-economic inequality has been on a steady rise globally over the past several years, gaining further strength from the pandemic. Growing inequality has hurt inclusive development and is projected to restrict global growth at 5.4% in 2021 following a contraction of 3.6% in 2020, as per the findings of the World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP). Vaccine inequity has emerged as the newest force behind this growing disparity. As per Elliott Harris, UN Chief Economist, “Timely and universal access to COVID vaccinations will mean the difference between ending the pandemic promptly and placing the world economy on the trajectory of a resilient recovery, or losing many more years of growth, development, and opportunities.” Persisting inequality has meant that many leading economies will not see output returning to pre-pandemic levels before 2024. As a result, vaccination has become imperative if we want to expedite the return to normalcy and prepare for future challenges. Herein, corporate programs have offered pace to vaccination while also easing related difficulties. This has been especially true for developing and under-developed economies that are behind in acquiring vaccines, and as a result, behind in recovery.

Last year, the pandemic had exposed the inequalities in Indian society. From March 2020, we saw millions of workers across India struggle during the pandemic lockdown with job losses and challenges with sourcing essentials. These challenges continued into 2021, with Indians struggling to find life-saving drugs, hospital beds, and oxygen cylinders during the second wave. Access to vaccines also remained under pressure with inadequate supply and uneven distribution. The digital divide added further difficulties for millions without the knowledge of the Internet and skills of booking vaccines digitally. Recently, there were reports of people from Bengaluru traveling over 100 km to the suburbs for vaccinations. This created a disturbance in local communities which could not avail the vaccines meant for them. Meanwhile, variable pricing of vaccines has added an extra layer of confusion in the vaccination process. Under the myriad of challenges, corporate immunization has improved access to vaccination, especially for the most vulnerable. Add to this, the inclusion of family members has offered relief for scores of thousands of professionals across India. This will contribute towards building herd immunity.

Vaccination drives organized by start-ups and e-commerce companies as well as multinationals and public sector enterprises have inoculated millions of Indians so far. This has helped people get back to work amid the disruption caused by the pandemic. Corporate initiatives also helped millions avoid the glitches and limitations with the vaccination drives enabled by government portals. Additionally, people with senior citizen relations and those with urgency to travel abroad have greatly befitted from timely access to vaccines. Meanwhile, it’s the equity factor that has been the biggest boon of corporate vaccination. Blue-collar workers, who otherwise would have experienced considerable difficulties getting the vaccine, have now received their dosages. Spending a day’s wage or more would have discouraged a large number of workers from getting the vaccine; corporate drives helped resolve that. These and many other benefits will help cushion the long-term impact of the pandemic on Indian society at large. The move attains increased importance with the possibility of a third wave lurking around. Herein, corporate vaccination will be a vital force in battling future waves and in returning the economy to normalcy at the earliest.

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