From GST on life-savers during a pandemic to rapid vaccination of a large population to have a codified policy on vaccine passports, The Quint’s Editor-in-Chief Raghav Bahl shares his views on how India could learn from the West and improve his fight against COVID-19.
High GST on Life-Saving Medicines is Brutal Exploitation Amid a Pandemic
Garib Ram was a cobbler living in a village in the National Capital Region. He suddenly got breathless one day. His son rushed to the nearest chemist to buy a pulse oximeter, paying Rs 500 of which Rs 25 was GST for the government. Garib’s oxygen level plummeted.
An RT-PCR test was done for Rs 800, out of which Rs 40 was GST. He had Covid-19. An ambulance was called to take him to a government hospital in Delhi. The traumatic journey cost Rs 3000, out of which Rs 360 was paid as GST. Garib’s son also bought a few oxygen cylinders costing Rs 5000 and paid Rs 250 as GST.
The doctors tried to blast Garib’s illness by giving him a cocktail of medicines. Remdesivir cost Rs 10,000 with Rs 500 going towards GST. But Tocilizumab and Amphotericin B were cheaper. Garib’s son quizzically asked the chemist for an explanation. “No GST on it, sir”. “Okay, please give me two sanitiser bottles for the family”. The chemist looked sheepish as he said “Rs 190, plus Rs 10 for GST”. Garib’s son just shook his head in resignation.
His mind was seething with troubling questions: Why do I have to pay the highest tax to transport my ailing father to the hospital? Or to buy sanitisers to keep everybody else safe? Or on medical oxygen? He chose to keep quiet lest an FIR was filed against him for creating “disaffection” against the state.
But he silently joined 140 cr Indians (except for the few hundred who are in the cabinet or work in the finance ministry) who are clueless about the “how, why, and what for” of India’s taxation of Covid-19 treatments.
Unfortunately, Garib Ram died.
His son took his wife, mother, and two kids across to the vaccination center, but was told “no doses are available here, go to the private hospital across the road, they have the shots”. Well, you guessed it. Late Garib Ram’s family paid Rs 800 per shot, with Rs 40 going towards GST!
And since nobody in Late Garib Ram’s family had ever studied economics, they could not articulate how “regressive” such a regime of indirect taxes is, which levies the same amount on a pauper and a millionaire.
So high indirect taxes, especially on life-saving medication in a pandemic, are the most brutal and exploitative levy - but how was Late Garib Ram’s family to know that, as they took a taxi back to their village, paying nearly Rs 200 as GST for the ride back home.
The Magic of Rapid Vaccination Ft. United Kingdom
If you think a third or fourth or nth wave of Covid-19 is a media-created myth, look at what’s happening in the United Kingdom. The country is on the verge of opening up. But if television pictures are real, almost everybody is out on the streets of London, furiously hopping pubs and guzzling beer. You would think the horrible virus is history. But hold on.
The UK recorded over 8000 new infections in the last 24 hours. Adjusted for population levels, that’s almost twice (italics please) India’s number! Yes, the UK is currently twice as dangerous as India, yet they are calmly thinking of opening up completely. Why? Because they’ve done something we haven’t.
In the UK, nearly 75% of all adults have received one dose, while 45% have been fully vaccinated. In India, the comparable numbers are about 20% and less than 5%. That’s the crucial difference. So even as their infection rate is twice India’s, there are hardly any reports of severe hospitalisations or deaths. That’s the magical impact of rapid vaccination.
India Must Smell the Coffee on Vaccine Passports
Vaccine passports! Even as the developed world is creating a scientific code to allow fully vaccinated people to restart normal lives, we are continuing to deny their efficacy and calling for a ban (there’s another global phenomenon where we have similarly buried our policy head in the sand, viz bitcoins and cryptocurrencies, but I will return to that on another day).
Worse, in another typically “eyes closed” Indian policy response, we are allowing vaccine passports to mushroom around us in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner.
You must have heard about the golf course which has said that only fully vaccinated players and caddies will be allowed on the course? Or the municipal corporations in Madhya Pradesh which are allowing only fully vaccinated shopkeepers to open trade? Or malls that are allowing only fully vaccinated people to enter? What would you call these restricted approvals? Yes, these are vaccine passports, which are springing up all around us, without any code or oversight, even as our government just sleepwalks, insisting on a “ban”.
C’mon, as the honourable Supreme Court said in a related context, “wake up and smell the coffee”! Before it becomes the law of the jungle, jump in, learn from the West, codify the rules, and usher in a well-regulated regime of vaccine passports in India.
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