When future generations look back at this moment, democracy will be adjudged in needle jabs.

As the world’s largest democracy rolls out the world’s biggest programme for providing vaccination to 1.3 billion people against the Covid-19 disease, it is a pivot in the history of democracy in India, and in the world.

It is easily forgotten today that vaccination, and inoculation, and indeed the spread of health for the masses using government tools and materials have been one of the key pillars in the empowerment and the spread of democratic processes around the world. In America, for instance, the ‘founding fathers’, men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams, were also supporters and propagators of inoculation against the dreaded smallpox at a time when many were suspicious of such medical treatment.

The successful roll-out of the vaccine in India will complete a cycle that started with the country not only enforcing a tough lockdown, pushing almost full compliance of the use of face masks, sending much needed medication like hydroxychloroquine to several countries, and an Indian company (Serum Institute) mass producing the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. It will showcase that far from being a problem centre, India’s ability to handle problems at a mass scale, and provide global solutions, again at scale, is something for the world to learn from, and prize.

Health workers wait for their turn outside a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Gurugram.
Health workers wait for their turn outside a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Gurugram.
Image : Narendra Bisht

As images of trucks surrounded by security vehicles transporting vaccine to the remote corners of the country start to appear in India, it is a democratic moment akin to 1813 when, in America, James Madison cleared An Act to Encourage Vaccination which in turn led to the formation of the National Vaccine Agency and implemented the free shipping of vaccine materials using the U.S. postal service. In India, the country is using its talent in organising the biggest elections in the world to distribute and ensure vaccination of its large population across its vast geography.

At a time when even the richest countries in the world seem to be struggling with the scale and efficiency required to efficiently spread vaccination against Covid-19, Indian systems and processes, and its pharmaceutical manufacturing, are in the spotlight. The country has been able to ensure a mask adoption level far more stringent—willingly—from its citizens than many other, far wealthier, nations who take pride in their civic regulations.

This is a pivotal moment at a time when India seeks to renegotiate the terms of its international standing to better reflect not only its size and stature, but also its contribution to global goods of governance. The country was able to much better contain the Covid-19 pandemic than initially feared—in March 2020, predictions of 300 million to 500 million cases (and ‘millions of deaths’) in India were flying around. In January 2021, India has had around 10.5 million cases, of which 97% have fully recovered. There have only been around 150,000 deaths.

To a large extent, the credit of this success must go to incessant messaging at all tiers of society, government, and non-government, about the importance of wearing masks, and mass adoption of the same.

India’s mass mask adoption will go down as one of the most successful non-coercive, democratic implementations of a mass social task and duty. It has shown that such adoption is possible without dictatorial force. Its efficient production of the vaccine at scale—not only for domestic consumption but soon for the world—is evidence of its pharmaceutical manufacturing capabilities.

Mass participation in public programmes without coercion in India is a win at a time when images of defiance of democratic processes and election results are beaming around the world and faith in democratic processes seem ever so low.

The vaccination programme in India is also likely to give a further fillip to its economy as it emerges from the shadow of the pandemic. In December 2020, S&P Global Ratings said it expects India’s growth to be much stronger than the firm had earlier forecast, calling its recovery “faster than expected”.

As more and more Indians get vaccinated, this growth is likely to soar further, along with the country’s democratic credentials as a pillar of global health.

Views are personal. The author is an award-winning author of nine books. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

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