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Private vax overdrives: How law firms struggle getting corporate jabs (and why most might prefer doing it quietly after #SAMCares)

#SAMRocks: Jab-related hashtags made appearances on social media
#SAMRocks: Jab-related hashtags made appearances on social media

Over the past days, legal whisper networks as well as social media sites have been abuzz about Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas’ (SAM) vaccination camp, which had begun vaccinating all of its Delhi staff at its Okhla offices.

The reason there was a buzz: Instagram and LinkedIn posts of SAMmers in a “MAX @Home-branded ‘selfie’ photobooth with a SAM banner in the background.

The firm had tied up in Delhi with MAX for a camp, which the chain of hospitals had branded with the tagline of “Welcome to the World’s Largest Vaccination Drive”.

An internal SAM email, sent two days ago (12 May) to all staff with instructions about the Delhi vaccination camp, suggested to “click your selfie against the SAM standee” and tagging the firm with hashtags including #SAMCares #SAMrocks #igotmyshot #workplacevaccinationdrive #organisationsthatcare.

Several heeded the call on 12 and 13 May and posted on Instagram and LinkedIn with the hashtags (though there were no more posts today, on 14 May).

Screenshots from the mail soon began making the rounds on various messaging services, raising a few eyebrows both within the firm and sniping from the wider profession, with one commenter in the Legally India conversations section invoking it as a sign of “late-stage capitalism”, an internet meme that has been gaining some currency online.

A SAM partner involved in the programme declined to comment when contacted, and other law firms spoken to requested anonymity.

However, SAM is far from the only law firm (or corporate) working on vaccinating its staffers, albeit with varying results (more on that below).

From SAM To All email of 12 May
From SAM To All email of 12 May

More than just optics

“We have Delhi happening next week but we don’t want to put [anything] in the media and have told people not to do social networking posts,” said one lawyer at a big Indian firms, when asked about their plans.

"[A large conglomerate in Mumbai] provided vaccines for all employees across its companies [...] and five family members,” they said, adding, pointedly: “Without hash tags, sound dance and light show.”

It is not at all surprising that law firms should want to vaccinate their ‘people’: getting your shot, especially for most under-45s, is at this time basically a lottery for slots on the official CoWin website, like a more serious version of trying for cheap Tatkal train tickets on IRCTC.

And besides potentially saving the lives of your colleagues and their families, there is also another (usually unspoken of) benefit: for corporate law firms that can get fully vaxxed-up, life might just return to ‘normal’ a little earlier (notwithstanding the huge question marks of whether second shots will even be available for anyone any time soon).

A similar rationale might also be imputed into the government’s part-privatisation of the vaccine drive, which could get corporates and the most affluent back to ‘normal’ the fastest and help GDP figures look better, while also appeasing certain powerful vote banks.

Vaccine shots on Insta
Vaccine shots on Insta

Not just about the law (firms)

The (mostly whispered) outrage that SAM has faced about its vaccine-related social media campaign is therefore a more nuanced affair, which is bigger than a single law firm: after all, SAM had only been following the law and current regulations.

Sure, publicising vaccines in the strange days of anti-vax and Covid-denying conspiracy theories has value. But it also has potentially terrible optics when elite lawyers and comparatively privileged BigLaw staff post selfies about getting their jabs, when (mostly) poor people are dying so fast in many states that crematoriums can’t keep up with dead bodies and worse.

But fundamentally, the opprobrium is perhaps also related to the vaccine policies themselves, which part-privatised vaccine distribution for those younger than 45.

Murali Neelakantan, the former general counsel of Cipla and Glenmark, had today co-authored an opinion piece pointing out the many inefficiencies and fundamental policy problems in the vaccine roll-out strategy, as one without global precedent.

With the pandemic, both in its 1.0 and 2.0 incarnations having already disproportionately affected the poor, as activist Harsh Mander today elucidated, citing new research, an obvious question is why the lives of those working in corporates and law firms effectively get priority?

Struggles also for corporate lawyers

That is not to say that every corporate lawyer is going to even see their first dose of the jab anytime soon either.

On paper, corporates can get priority access to vaccines for their staff. The reality is that demand still far outstrips supply and is likely to do so for a while yet.

Senior law firm partners and managers who were working on rolling out vaccines programmes for staff were mostly unkind. “What a mess,” said one; another used the word “chaotic”.

“None of them [private hospitals] are permitting anything at the moment, firstly not all of them have stocks available, and wherever they have stocks, they have committed to very large organisations,” said one person at a large mid-size law firm familiar with the process.

Two senior law firm sources involved in the plans said that the hospitals they had contacted had told them they were prioritising holding “vaccination camps” for larger organisations, requiring minimum numbers of at least 400 to 500 staff who can turn up to the office camps.

Number games

Having minimum size requirements for Covid camps makes sense for two reasons.

First, the logistics required for organising a camp are not negligible.

On the government side, a “district task force chaired by the district magistrate and an urban task force chaired by the municipal commissioner will administer the process. Senior staff at the workplace will be selected as the nodal officer to coordinate with the respective authorities,” according to to a report in DNA about the regulations.

On top of that, according to several persons familiar with the process, the hospital would need to effectively set up mini-mobile hospitals in an office, requiring several different rooms (waiting, shooting and post-shot monitoring), as well as trained medical and admin staff to run the show and an ambulance on standby outside the office.

In case “anyone should have an adverse reaction, our office spaces are not equipped”, said a partner, while another partner criticised such in-office camps, which “in these times takes away medical staff” from hospitals.

The second reason might simply be about profitability: the Times of India reported recently that four private hospitals charged from Rs 700 to Rs 1,500 for shots for individuals.

However, a person closely involved in a law firm’s efforts to procure office vaccines said that for an in-office Covid camp, hospitals were quoting around Rs 300 to Rs 400 above the standard (private) cost of the vaccine, while a person at another law firm said they had been told it would cost Rs 1,800 per shot.

The person added that a hospital said they could only vaccinate 150 to 200 staff per day at most at each location, to maintain safety precautions (more could presumably be done at much larger office spaces).

To be sure, the rates and numbers are not exorbitant but it might explain why hospitals are prioritising larger organisations where there is a bigger profit to be made.

While one hospital told Forbes that “we may have specific preferences for some of the corporate customers and could try and plan on that basis”, there is also no real transparency on how hospitals are prioritising between selling shots to mega corporates for larger margins versus those sold to the few private citizens.

It stands to reason that profits will be at least one of the determining factors in how shots will be allocated out of the approximately 25% of manufacturers' vaccine capacity reserved for the private sector (the other 25% might go to states and 50% to the centre for over-45s).

Off-site vax priority

Even for on-site vaccination drives, individuals are still required to register on the government’s CoWin portal so their vaccination can eventually be linked to their identity.

Registering on the site has not been a problem for most (at least those Indians who are somewhat technology savvy and with the right access), but the difficulty has come in booking an appointment when small batches of vaccines are near-randomly released and usually snapped up in minutes (even the system that had encouraged third party apps to query available slots has been significantly curtailed around a week ago).

As such, some law firms are trying to go for the second option where a hospital will set aside time for corporate staff. Under this corporates-only programme, staff would automatically get slots booked for jabs on the hospital premises (as long as they are already also in the CoWin system).

Quiet influence

Even getting into an on-hospital corporate programme is not guaranteed: in these early days, getting a corporate Covid programme organised at a law firm is ultimately also about soft power.

Perhaps in light of the sensitivities and optics, no private hospitals we could find have strongly publicised or advertised their corporate vaccination camps, let alone details on how to register or whom to contact.

“It depends about which hospital, what your relationship is, etc” about whether you can get them to come to you or tie-up with you, said one lawyer.

A law firm manager added that in Delhi “we are talking to them [hospitals] but they are not showing interest, we are even pushing through senior level [partners at the firm with relationships with the hospital chains]“.

As such, perhaps also showcasing it as one of the best-connected law firms in the national capital, SAM was the first law firm out of the blocks with its Delhi camp, to the best of our knowledge.

Another firm’s Mumbai partner said that in Mumbai no such hospital tie-ups were available for law firms yet; one in Bengaluru said it might be possible to make deals there; a Noida-based law firm partner based said that being located in Uttar Pradesh added to the complexity.

“It’s all very fluid. We have been very keen and were probably the first to plan as close to May 1 but UP hadn’t framed guidelines at than time and then the government took back the unused vaccines from all the earlier facilities by May 1 and then everything [went] very topsy turvy.”

The topsy turvy part looks unlikely to change.

But it is likely that future law firm vaccination camps, if any, will go down rather more quietly.

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