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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 26, New Delhi, June 12, 2021

Covid -19 Vaccination in India: Prioritizing the Informal Workforce | Sanjoy De

Saturday 12 June 2021

by Dr. Sanjoy De

The first case of Covid 19 infection was detected in India on January 27, 2020 in Kerala. What followed this incident was the sordid saga of a very costly experimental-type medical treatment everywhere, which is still going on. Now, the only silver lining is that some clinically proved vaccines have been invented which the experts are opining to be the potential game changer. Here it is to be ‘jubilantly’ noted that India is the largest producer of vaccine in the world and enjoys natural advantage in this field.

Where Does India Stand?

Now let us shift our gaze to the country’s vaccination program and have a look at where we stand actually vis-a-vis other countries. United Kingdom earned the distinction of being the first country in the world which initiated the vaccination drive by administering the Pfizer Covid-19 jab as part of a mass vaccination program to a nonagenarian lady in December 8, 2020. On the other side, India began its vaccination program in Mid-January 2021. Not even a very staunch critic would condemn that it has been a very late start. Despite the initial fanfare, the pace of vaccination has slowed down or has not mounted up to the level as it should have been.

As per the country level statistics provided by the University of Oxford-based scientific online publication agency Our World in Data (OWID), by the end of May 2021, Israel has been successful in fully vaccinating three-fifths of its about 90.5 lakhs population. United States of America and the United Kingdom — the two countries in the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean — have also made significant strides in their vaccination drive. These two countries which were severely ravaged by the virus attack have already administered two doses of the approved vaccines to about 40% of their population as on June 1, 2021. In Italy, where the death toll rose to around 1.2 lakhs till the beginning of June 2021, nearly 20% of its population has already received two doses of the vaccines. Importantly, the country in the lap of the mighty Alps has set the plan to inoculate at least 80% of its population by the end of September. Even Brazil, whose President Jair Bolsonaro was accused of pooh-poohing the virus threat, is much ahead of India in its immunization program. This biggest Latin American country both in terms of population and area, has managed to apply two jabs of vaccines to more than 10% of its population by early June this year. Again, if we look at the African continent, we see that the immunization exercise is pitifully inadequate. Only 1% of the people of the continent have been vaccinated till the beginning of June. [1] Not only Africa, situation is alarming in many countries of Latin America, Caribbean Islands and Asia too. It is undeniable that there is huge dearth of vaccines. But the problem in many of the countries is much deep-rooted. With awfully poor health infrastructure, apathetic logistics for the distribution of the vaccines and lack of consciences among the populace, these countries are likely to pay heavy price to this pandemic.

Now let us come to India. According to the data furnished by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, as of June 1, 2021, the country has administered over 21.5 crore doses of anti-Covid vaccine. This includes first and the second doses of the currently approved vaccines. [2] If we use the population data as given by Census 2011 [3] to arrive at the percentage of vaccinated people, we see that only 3.7% of the people were inoculated with two jabs while slightly more than 14% of the population got one dose of the vaccine. It is quite understandable that the actual percentage of people who got vaccinated would be lower than the above mentioned figures since the actual population size as of now would be much higher than the 2011 population figure as recorded in Census 2011. Again, if we go by the state-wise percentage, we observe huge variation in the vaccination drive.

What should be the Optimal Strategy?

Given the state of vaccination, the most pertinent question that crops up is what should be the optimal vaccination strategy of the country going forward. It is to be noted that till now, a major chunk of the people who got vaccinated are front line workers as demarcated by the government. Alongside the health care workers, police personnel, armed forces, home guards and civil defense volunteers, elder people and some others, this included people engaged in the election process which was held in the five states in the country over a month till May 2, 2021. These people mainly belong to the organized sector. A major chunk of them belongs to the creamy government sector. Now the time has come to change the direction of prioritization formal sector to the hitherto uncharted informal sector [4] which employs nearly 90% of the workforce [5] in the country and which provides much needed oxygen to the economy. [6] A vast informal sector which engages majorly low-skilled workers is comfortably placed side by side with the tiny formal sector. This phenomenon is true for India too (Porta and Shleifer, 2014). Especially in the developing countries, this pandemic has widened the inequalities in the labor market which is ‘turbocharged by informality’. The ability to work remotely (or work from home) is positively associated with education. So the low or less-skilled and comparatively less educated or uneducated informal workers are likely to be hardest hit by the pandemic (Ferreira, 2021).

Financially also, majority of them are not in a position to take the jabs through private hospitals by paying a hefty price. Getting the vaccine after standing in the queue inordinately means the loss of a day’s wage — which they cannot afford to sacrifice at this tough time. Also the highly digitalized online registration process of vaccination, priority by age group and information asymmetry add to their vaccine hesitancy. For the families of these people, the earning member is the indispensible unit irrespective of his/her age. Often it is seen that the majority of them are young and have not yet been vaccinated. Age-wise prioritization of vaccines (i.e., giving vaccines to the elderly people first) may be economically counter-productive as the families of the young infected earning members of the informal sector may not be bear the burnt due to the loss of the earning member.

One infection can prove out to be fatal given the highly labour-intensive nature of many informal activities such as in the construction, jewelry, garment industry etc. Giving higher weight to vaccinate this category of workforce including the people engaged in cosmopolitan cities in the capacity of mall workers, food cart vendors, housekeeping staff, drivers and others would not only instill confidence to their employers but also give some succor to the economy. The establishment of vaccination centers in the slums, brothels, factories, malls can be thought to bring at least some percentage of this vulnerable people in the ambit of immunization.

The Issue of Justice

On top of all, the failure to provide vaccine to this vast informal population or at least to give priority to this section in immunization, brings to the fore the issue of economic justice in the system (Rawls, 1971). Already, the informal workers routinely experience the chasm of relative poverty, poor/low wages, inadequate access to health care products and the peril of no social protection.

For them, lockdown of any nature — partial or prolonged — is a curse. This gives huge blow to their basic human existential identity. Their dignity gets severely thrashed. Only a justified move can save them as well as the society from this great loss.


  • Francisco, Ferreira (2021): Inequality in the Time of COVID-19, Finance and Development, IMF.
  • La Porta, Rafael, and Andrei Shleifer (2014): Informality and Development, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28 (3): 109-26.
  • Rawls, John (1971): A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sengupta. Atanu, De. Sanjoy, Hazra. Anirban and Seth. Ujjal (2020): The Trails of a Blood-Sucking Vampire: Ingredients of COV19 Pandemic Analysis, Mainstream Weekly, Volume 58, No 19.

(Author: Dr. Sanjoy De is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Shyampur Siddheswari Mahavidyalaya, University of Calcutta, West Bengal, India; E-mail: sanjoyde2000[at]

[1The author is indebted to the Anandabazar Patrika, dated June 3, 2021, for this information.

[2In India, two vaccines - Covishield and Covaxin have mainly been applied. Covishield vaccine has been developed by the University of Oxford in collaboration with AstraZeneca. In India, Covishield is being produced by the Pune-based Serum Institute. Covaxin has been developed by Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company in association with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology. The government of India has recently given approval to Sputnik V. This vaccine will be distributed by the Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories as the third vaccine.

[3As per the Census 2011 (which is the latest authentic count), India’s population was 121.06 crore.

[4The First Indian National Commission on Labor (1966-69) defined, unorganized/informal sector workforce as –“those workers who have not been able to organize themselves in pursuit of their common interest due to certain constraints like casual nature of employment, ignorance and illiteracy, small and scattered size of establishments”.

[5As per the Periodic Labor Force Survey, 2017-18, conducted by the National Sample Survey Organization, in 2017-18, the share of informal sector workforce in the total workforce of the country was 86.8%.

[6As per the data computed from the National Accounts Statistics 2019, the informal sector contributed 52.4% to Gross Value (GVA) added of the economy in 2017-18.

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