By Yamini Kandpal
Late in May, several villagers in Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district jumped into the Saryu river. Under ideal circumstances, this dip into the river could have been to get respite from the scorching, summer heat. Only, it wasn’t. The villagers leaped off to escape vaccination after a team of healthcare workers reached the spot. Around 200 people fled from their homes since they did not want to get jabbed.This is only one example amidst numerous others where vaccine hesitancy has been at display. While India’s vaccine program has largely been flailing in its tracks owing to a shortage of jabs for its own population, the country’s vaccination drive has also been shrouded in a number of myths. A considerable number of people are portraying vaccine hesitancy stemming from rumors surrounding their safety. It goes without saying that the government was unable to convince the people about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and some of the Opposition’s impetuous statements have only added fuel to the fire.
Early in January, Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister had said that he would not get the ‘BJP vaccine.’ However, after facing flak, the leader ‘clarified’ that he had full faith in the scientists but not on the ruling party’s unscientific thinking.
Following Akhilesh Yadav’s callous statement, Congress leader Rashid Alvi backed the former up, stating that amidst an environment where Opposition leaders were being given much trouble by the Centre, it was valid if someone had doubts over the vaccines.
However, those in the Opposition were not the only ones to point fingers on the vaccines. Mr Ramdev, famously touted as India’s yoga guru, went a step further to claim that about a thousand doctors died after getting vaccinated while casually doing a yoga posture. In another such reckless statement, he averred that 10,000 doctors died after contracting coronavirus following vaccination. Of course he did not reveal his source of information.
In that sequence, the Prime Minister himself failed to adhere to COVID-appropriate behavior on several occasions. His mask-less visuals addressing massive electoral rallies, irresponsible boasting of huge crowds while people were running from pillar to post to seek basic healthcare facilities also unleashed serious damage on compliance of Covid protocol. Declaring pre-mature victory, stating that India had won the war against the coronavirus without vaccines also did not help.
Doubts regarding vaccines, questioning their safety because they were developed in record-time and rumors that they can lead to long-term effects have also seriously dented our vaccination drive.
The Indian government’s approval to Covaxin, which is being produced by Bharat Biotech, a Hyderabad-based company in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), even though its phase-3 clinical trials had not been released, raised more suspicion and created further confusion. Similar questions had earlier also been raised about the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine which is being produced in the country by the Serum Institute of India.
Another widely circulated myth about the vaccine is over its long-term effects. Suspicions ranging from vaccines being a ‘sterilising tool,’ jabs being poisonous injections, Whats App forwards ‘warning women’ to not get vaccinated during periods, the list only grows more innovative and murky.
While people living in the urban areas have better access and exposure to information regarding vaccines, their rural counterparts are likely to give significance to word-of-mouth. Rumors also tend to spread like wildfire in the countryside where lack of awareness, coupled with absence of reliable and trustworthy sources of information, lower level of education and a frail healthcare infrastructure add to the prevailing doubts and a ‘fear’ of vaccines. In such a scenario, these careless and unconsidered statements have exacerbated vaccine hesitancy.
The Modi government has largely reaped the benefits of its effective use of the power of ‘messaging.’ However, if we take a bird’s eye view of people’s doubts and suspicion over the vaccine, two things clearly stand out which indicate that it wasn’t the same this time.
In stark contrast between its sayings and doings, the Modi government was ineffectual in making a large portion of the rural population understand the severity of the pandemic. At the very start of the lockdown in March 2020–which was in itself implemented without providing a suitable heads-up—the PM tasked people to bang ‘taali’ and ‘thaalis.’
On the other hand, the PM participated in the ‘Bhoomi Pujan’ in August where social distancing norms were clearly flouted. At the time, the pandemic was still afflicting people on a large scale and the country was clocking over 50,000 cases daily. Huge electoral rallies were held where all caution was thrown to the wind by the Prime Minister himself. By that time, the second wave of the pandemic had already started raging and later came the instruction to follow the COVID protocol. There was a blunt contradiction in the words and actions, thus creating further perplexity.
Coupled with some uncaring statements by the Opposition, the lack of clarity and skepticism around a vaccine candidate getting ‘emergency use approval’ in the absence of clear clinical trial results, an ambiguous and fluctuating stance on lockdown policy has finally led us to a situation of vaccine hesitancy.
The government needs to pull up its socks and use its powerful tool of messaging to create cognizance about vaccines, dispel myths around them and work at the grassroots to execute a successful and robust vaccination program.
The writer is currently working in the media sector. Views are personal.