By Shubhangi Shah
Covid-19 dominated much of our lives in the past over two years. And if you think about it, it was the vaccine, along with the successful vaccination drives carried out across the world, that brought normalcy back to our lives. Quite rightfully, the Merriam-Webster dictionary chose ‘vaccine’ as its word of the year in 2021, and it is vaccines that are the topic of Indian bureaucrat Sajjan Singh Yadav’s book.
Titled India’s Vaccine Growth Story: From Cowpox to Vaccine Maitri, the book, divided into nine elaborate chapters, does not just describe India’s story but that of the vaccine in totality. Starting with the 1796 discovery of the smallpox jab by British scientist Edward Jenner, Yadav takes us back in time to the development of vaccines for ailments that had scarred mankind for ages. From cholera and plague to polio and finally Covid-19, the writer narrates the story behind the development of jabs for each of these in a dynamic and engaging form, with several anecdotes and interesting facts thrown in. For example, he interestingly points out the Hindu practice of worshipping smallpox goddess Shitala. Intriguingly, the practice of worshipping to ward off this scarring disease was carried out in other parts of the world too, including China, Japan and Africa.
It is this style of writing that makes the first two chapters more engaging than the rest when Yadav switches to a more academic style of writing typical of non-fiction.
The focus of much of the book is on India’s ‘roller-coaster’ journey, from a vaccine importer to the ‘largest’ exporter. Naturally, there were roadblocks, one of the biggest probably being the government’s tightened control over production from independence till the 1990s. Then came liberalisation, the loosening of the state’s control, which ultimately led the private players to flourish, the most prominent being Cyrus Poonawalla’s Serum Institute of India, whose journey Yadav has described in great detail.
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While writing about the ‘pandemic speed’ at which the vaccine development work was taken up when Covid struck, the writer does not miss out on describing prior experiences, such as during the H1N1, SARS, and MERS outbreaks, when similar efforts were undertaken. This creates a clear understanding that no significant achievement is made in a silo and is, in fact, compounded by years of work preceding that.
Yadav dedicates a considerable part of his book to the Covid vaccine development and production in India, how the private players went all for it and the government extended its full support. It creates a hopeful picture of what can be achieved when corporates and government come together for a tough and resolved fight for a pressing cause.
Not just vaccines, the writer also elaborates much on vaccination, the final yet defining step. From mobilising staff and figuring out the first target group to setting up centres and reining in vaccine hesitancy, there is so much at this stage before the jab is finally administered, something which the writer has described effectively.
Apart from these, the economics part of vaccination needs much attention too. A disease-free body paves the way for many economic opportunities is what Yadav opines. Then comes vaccine diplomacy, how “countries are increasingly using health diplomacy to extend their soft power, strengthen their diplomatic ties, cultivate deeper relationships with their citizens, and improve their image both at home and abroad.” India also undertook a similar bid during the Covid pandemic when it offered vaccines to several countries.
The writing, for the most part, is engaging. The inclusion of data in a way that is not difficult to understand keeps it interesting. However, some passages can feel dragging, such as the one on the origin and spread of Covid-19, especially since it has been a lived experience.
Also, the writing seems nationalistic towards the end, the movie-kind where a hero faces several hurdles but counters each of these like a boss. Yes, the major scarcity of vaccines during the second wave and the technical glitches in the Co-WIN app have been described. However, the reasons behind these are generally attributed to the critics and the writer refrains from giving his own assessment. He seems to have gone soft on policy misjudgments by the Centre, such as its vaccine diplomacy of supplying jabs abroad before being jolted by a major shortage that forced it to suspend all exports. Also, the criticism by Opposition parties on aspects of vaccines and the vaccination drive reads more like a political burden on the Centre than a crucial and dynamic aspect of any functional democracy.
In the end, India’s Vaccine Growth Story is an easy read that can be consumed by academicians and non-academics alike.
India’s Vaccine Growth Story
Sajjan Kumar Yadav
Pp 308, Rs 595