Centre, states pitch in to dispel vaccine hesitancy in rural areas
“If you get vaccine, we will meet again. If you don’t, we will meet at Narmada ghat,” cautions a colourful banner on an auto rickshaw in Bhopal, referring to a cremation ground in the central Indian city.
Almost 1500km away, in Ganderbal, a little north of Srinagar, religious leaders are using loudspeakers at mosques to urge people to go and get vaccinated.
These are some of the efforts on in rural India as various administrations, central, state and local, work towards encouraging people in smaller cities, towns or villages to take Covid-19 vaccines. While the overwhelming issue right now, even in rural India, is supplies, there is also hesitancy caused by fear of vaccines, or prompted by misapprehensions regarding them.
To date, India has fully vaccinated 47,224,623 people and partially vaccinated 148,029,921, according to the HT dashboard. The current population eligible for vaccination is 940 million (those over the age of 18 years). Assuming that even 60% of this is rural (Census 2011 put the proportion at 68.9%), this works out to 564 million people in rural India who need to be vaccinated.
Based on data from health ministry’s Co-WIN dashboard analysed by HT, 13.4% of all adults living in India’s rural districts have received at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine till June 7, while this proportion was 24% in urban and 18% in semi-urban districts.
According to a HT analysis on May 8, around the peak of the second wave, rural and semi-rural India was contributing almost 58% of new Covid-19 cases.
The Union ministry of minority affairs has begun a pan-Indian campaign to tackle concerns and myths about the inoculation drive that have resulted in vaccine hesitancy among minority communities. According to an official aware of the matter, a national-level awareness campaign has been organised, especially in areas that have a high percentage of minorities and where people have shown reluctance to take vaccines.
“In some areas the ministry is relying on women’s self-help groups to drive away the misconceptions about the vaccines. The ministry has also reached out to religious and social organisations to help remove doubts and fears about the vaccines,” said the official quoted above.
Citing examples of areas with vaccine hesitancy, the official said administrations in several districts of Uttar Pradesh such as Sultanpur, Amethi, Aligarh and Moradabad, and in Haryana’s Mewat have reported reluctance towards vaccines based on dogmas, religious reasons and rumours.
Even as the government works on increasing vaccine supplies, it faces the task of addressing the issue of hesitancy.
Recently, a video showing an old woman in a village in Uttar Pradesh, hiding behind a drum fearing vaccination went viral, underlining how many in the rural belts are wary of taking vaccines. HT reported on May 20 how the fight against Covid-19 in rural Bihar is being hampered by the lack of health are infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy.
A report put out by the union panchayati raj ministry shows truck drivers, panchayats or even toll plazas have painted slogans such as “buri nazar wale tera munh kala, achha hoga vaccine lagwane wala” (wicked people be damned, good things will happen to those who got vaccinated). And women volunteers are conducting door to door surveys and even small rallies in villages to encourage people to take vaccines.
The ministry report highlighted that “in Gujarat, some panchayats even offered 50% concession in panchayat taxes to promote vaccination” while some others formed “Gram yoddha samiti” comprisingpanchayat leaders, ASHA workers and local police to counsel villagers.
A senior ministry official, who didn’t wish to be named, said, “It’s a tough job. But these Covid influencers are better placed as they belong to the local community.”
And in Odisha, where “there have been some vaccine hesitancy seen in certain tribal communities, the state government, according to the ministry, has provided ₹10,000 to each village welfare committees to undertake activities such as “poster campaigns, leaflet distribution, wall paintings and beating of drums.”
In faraway villages of Nagaland, women’s self-help groups “continue to install bamboo pole hand wash stations in public places in the village. During the first wave, 2316 hand wash facilityies has been installed across 1158 villages and this continues to be a practice in the second wave as well,” read the report shared by the ministry.
With inputs by Smriti Kak Ramachandran