On April 21, Keralites switched on their TV sets and waited for CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s press conference; it was his first presser after a long gap since he tested positive for COVID-19. Usually, people watch his daily press conferences that provide meticulous detailing on the current situation in the government’s battle against the pandemic. The CM told the state that day that his government would stay with its policy of providing vaccine free for all, no matter what the Centre does.
Soon after the press conference, a few individuals declared on social media that they would pay to the government for its commitment to the people. They announced that they had been contributing towards the free vaccine through the CMDRF (Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund).
“I saw a post by my friend Hari immediately after CM’s announcement that he would receive a free vaccine, but will pay for vaccination for ten people to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund. I was inspired from his post and suggested him to make it a campaign. We shared this idea on a WhatsAapp group, and thus it began” Shaji Mullookkaran, a photographer based in Palakkad, one of the first few who announced contribution to CMDRF, told The Federal.
The campaign has spread like wildfire on social media platforms. Many people have contributed to the CMDRF for the cost of the vaccine that they have received as an expression of protest against the Centre’s vaccine policy. The campaign was mostly taken over by Left handles.
The next day, the Chief Minister in his press conference announced that till 7 pm on a single day, ₹22 lakh was received by the CMDRF from people who received vaccination. “This makes our state so special. When the government took a decision to support its people in a crisis situation, the people thought they would support the government in return,” said the CM.
In the hours that followed, (after 7 pm till 12 am) around ₹ 30 lakh reached the CMDRF. Many complained that the CMDRF website was not available due to heavy traffic from late night on April 22. Google pay QR code and number of CMDRF accounts have been widely shared in the social media since then. The day closed with an amount of ₹ 52 lakh in the CM’s distress relief fund.
On April 23 till 12.50 pm, the amount received is shown as ₹ 64 Lakhs. Till 5 pm, it had breached the ₹1 crore-mark. Malayali people living in other countries too joined the campaign with relatively high amount of contribution. “Three members of my family in Kerala got free vaccination. This is our expression of support to the government. This is our duty to extend support to the rest of the people,” said Archana Suresh, who lives in Oman and contributed ₹ 50,000 to CMDRF.
“In the US, we get vaccine free of cost. Last year around this time we saw people dying without getting oxygen, ICU beds and ventilators there. We are worried about the current crisis in our country. This voluntary contribution by people to CMDRF is the best tool to protest against a system that makes profit even by selling a vaccine”, wrote Nazeer Hussain Kizhakkedath, a Malayali engineer living in US on his Facebook page by posting the receipt for ₹50,000 in the CMDRF.
The campaign is initiated by the Left handles as a protest against the Centre and in solidarity with the state government inviting the ire of BJP supporters. Though the party has not said anything against it, there is a counter campaign under way by pro-BJP handles alleging that the government was forcing people to pay. The party’s mouthpiece Janam TV has carried a news story that the government in the guise of offering free vaccination is forcing people to pay money for the vaccination.
“The BJP has lost its face as it has changed the goal post multiple times. Initially the Central government promised vaccine free for all and later withdrew it. The Centre is insisting the states to buy vaccine despite having a budget allocation of ₹35,000 crore exclusively for the vaccine,” said Dr Ramakumar, a member of the State Planning Board. He says the campaign for donation is inspiring. “The amount raised might only be a drop in the ocean as Kerala needs around ₹ 1,600 crore for vaccination. Yet as an expression of protest, the campaign is important and unique,” says Ramakumar.