With the number of active Covid cases showing a decline, the entire focus is now on carrying out a nationwide vaccination drive to protect all citizens from the third wave of the pandemic. On Monday, the Centre promised the Supreme Court that all Indians above the age of 18 years will be vaccinated by the end of the year, but the apex court wanted a detailed Covid vaccination policy from the government.
The Centre told the Supreme Court that it wants to ramp up vaccination drive-in “mission mode” targeting one crore doses per day starting from mid-July or August. The Centre said it expected more supplies from Bharat Biotech, SII, and Reddy’s Lab which is making Sputnik-V vaccines. Talks are going on between the Centre and Pfizer for procuring Covid vaccines on a large scale.
The apex court grilled the Solicitor General on the issue of the ‘digital divide’. The bench said, “Is it possible for migrant workers from a marginalised section from rural areas to register through the Cowin app?.. Are you aware of the sharp digital divide in rural areas? The policymakers must have ears to the ground and tweak the policy accordingly…Please smell the coffee and make suitable amendments to the policy decisions”.
The bench also asked: “What is the rationale behind the Centre procuring vaccines at a price that is higher for states, and even more for private hospitals? Why has the government left it to the manufacturers to fix prices? Why are the states and even municipal corporations floating global tenders for procuring vaccines? …Why did you abandon the 1978 policy decision for universal immunisation free of cost?”
The debate over vaccination is raging at a time when India reported the lowest number of daily fresh cases in 54 days at 1.27 lakh on Monday. The number of active caseload has declined to a low of 18.95 lakh. Active cases decreased by 1.30 lakh during the last 24 hours. The Covid death toll however climbed to 3,31,895 with 2,795 deaths on Monday. For the record, India reported a whopping 90.3 lakh Covid cases during the month of May, while nearly 1.2 lakh Indians died due to the pandemic during one month alone. The number of deaths in the month of May was two and a half times more compared to April, during which only 48.768 people had died.
To prevent the spread of the pandemic, both the Centre and states are now focusing on vaccination drive. But are villagers living across the great Indian hinterland ready to take Covid vaccines? Vaccinating people in rural areas has become a huge challenge. In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Monday night, we showed villagers from Bhopal to Bhagalpur in Bihar, expressing scepticism about the vaccines. I have reports from our correspondents from UP, MP, Maharashtra and Bihar, which clearly show that illiterate and semi-literate villagers are unwilling to get themselves vaccinated, based on baseless rumours and incorrect conjectures. In some villages, they are calling it ‘zehar ka injection’ (the poisonous injection). Health workers, including doctors, are having a tough time convincing villagers that the vaccines are harmless and are meant to protect them from the virus.
In some villagers, people said they would rather prefer to die in the pandemic rather than get themselves vaccinated and die. Rumours are rife in villages that most of the people who took vaccines died of Coronavirus. In some villages, local residents chased away and beat up health department workers who had come to vaccinate them. Fed up with such protests, local administrations in places like Ujjain and Firozabad have asked all their employees either to get vaccinated or forego their salaries. The employees are being told - ‘No vaccine, no salary’. In Mulayam Singh Yadav’s homeplace Saifai, the local administration has asked liquor vendors to sell liquor to only those who carry Covid vaccination certificates. Just imagine, what a huge task it is for vaccinating all citizens in India when even government or municipal staff are unwilling to take the vaccine because of incorrect perceptions.
Our reporter Anurag Amitabh went to Ratibad village, 20 km away from Bhopal, to ask villagers who they are avoiding the vaccine. Some said, they may die if they take the jab, while some others said, one could become impotent if vaccinated. Some of them said, they have read media reports saying, many of the people who died in the pandemic had taken the dose. Some went to the extent of peddling this baseless rumour that even our Prime Minister got infected after taking the vaccine.
In Bhagalpur, Bihar, our reporter Gonika Arora met villagers who claimed that people have died of Covid after taking the vaccine. The health care team which had gone to the Jagdishpur block of Bhagalpur district, said, every day they aim at vaccinating 400 people, but, in reality, hardly 250 doses are given in one week. There are villages where hardly 10 people get vaccinated. One health worker said, she waited from 9 am till 3 pm one day, but not a single villager turned up for vaccination.
Our reporter Ruchi Kumar visited Rahmatnagar village near Lucknow. Local ASHA worker went among the people persuading them to take the jab, but very few turned up at the community health centre. Most of the villagers had their own peculiar reasons for not opting to get vaccinated. Clearly, rumours are ruling the roost in these villages.
At a primary health centre in Aligarh, 29 loaded Covid vaccine injections were found dumped in the waste bin. After inquiry, the service of the local ANM (auxiliary nurse midwife) Niha Khan was terminated. An action was taken after videos emerged of the ANM making a show of pricking the arm of the beneficiary, but in effect, not injecting the vaccine dose in the body. She is then seen throwing the loaded injection in the garbage bin.
To make loud noises about carrying out vaccination drive may be easy, but to implement it is a huge task, particularly in rural areas. People, why are crying hoarse about the lack of Covid vaccines, are mostly from the cities. They should know the problems that doctors, nurses, ANMs face while actually administering vaccines to villagers. There are many reasons behind this pervading sense of scepticism – it could fear of death, fear due to baseless rumours or fear based on religious motives.
The Centre can only procure and send vaccines, set up vaccination centres, arrange registration of beneficiaries, send ASHA workers to people’s homes and villages, but who can motivate people? Those sitting inside their drawing rooms in cities can cite statistics of people getting vaccinated in the UK, US or Europe, but they should actually know the ground realities, speak to ANM workers, nurses and doctors about the difficulties they are facing during the drive.
It is true, most of the people in rural areas are either literate, semi-literate or gullible, and they easily believe in baseless rumours. I am all praise for our health workers who are going to villages, facing abuses, threats and beatings, but still try to convince people about the efficacy of Covid vaccines. My suggestion is: literate people living in villages like teachers, sarpanch, pandits, priests or moulvis should create awareness among people about the benefits of Covid vaccines. They should themselves come out and get themselves vaccinated in public so that people can follow their path. It is only when 70 per cent of Indians get vaccinated, can we heave a sigh of relief and the pandemic can make its exit.
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