Vacillating Between Virus And Vaccines: Intricacies Of Achieving Mass Inoculation
Despite the government's clarion call for a digital revolution, more than half of the country is still digitally illiterate. Expecting people to book their slots for vaccination through a digital mode widens the gulf between the privileged and the underprivileged.
The second wave of Covid has wreaked havoc in the country like never before, causing unprecedented deaths and irrevocable losses. The picture of the death-steeped rivers Ganga and Yamuna, which are deemed to be sacred rivers, and visuals of a host of burning corpses in Uttarakhand are sinister, gut-wrenching images of the pandemic. On a personal level, I have lost many friends and acquaintances. I know, nobody has been left untouched by this deadly disease. It is a sigh of relief that the second wave has finally begun to subside. However, considering the horrendous display of the virus in the last couple of months, we can hardly relax. Tough times stare at us for sure with an imminent third wave waiting to raise its head as soon as the second wave wanes. There will be a lull and then another storm!
Intricacies Of Vaccination
As per a report published by the government last month, the percentage of people who had taken both doses of either Covishield or Covaxin was less than 2 per cent in India. There are three paradigms involved in the process of vaccination. One is the "supply", which is taken care of by the government and its bodies. The second is the "demand" for the vaccine where the stakeholders are the general public. The third paradigm is the "vaccination centre" which acts as the site where the demand and the supply meet. In what follows, I will explicate the conditions of the vaccination centres and then move to the other paradigms.
When it comes to the vaccination centres, they act as possible breeding grounds for the virus. My own experience in a public vaccination centre testifies the blatant disregard of the public to any discipline as such. People throng the centres without following the Covid-appropriate behaviour. There are miscreants who barge into the queues and foment anarchy. There is none to control the crowd. The policemen stand indifferently as the public push and abuse each other. The lack of enough sitting space nullifies the government's request to stay in the centre for thirty minutes.
The lack of clarity in the first paradigm of "supply"—as in the case of the deferment of the second dose of Covishield against the practice in the UK—ushers in confusion among the masses. Furthermore, the acute scarcity of vaccines at this point in time can't be denied. We don't have the requisite resources to vaccinate the entire population. However, with more players slated to pitch in—namely Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, and others—there is a ray of hope. The government also needs to understand the pulse of the people. For instance, despite the government's clarion call for a digital revolution, more than half of the country is still digitally illiterate. Expecting people to book their slots for vaccination through a digital mode widens the gulf between the privileged and the underprivileged.
To cite from my own experience, I met a couple of such people who had come to the vaccination centre to know how to book a slot. I do not intend to portray that the government is deliberately depriving the masses. However, the government's pursuit of convenience in place of equitable distribution is leading to a chaotic situation. The privileged class, for example, can rely on private centres with paid facilities. They are already aware of the pandemic and the urgency of precautions and preventions. People who need to be brought on board are the poor slum-dwellers, who do not have an alternative to government facilities. Anganwadi workers make door-to-door visits to survey the situation in communities. It would be prudent if the government can advise them to facilitate the enrollment of these technically-deprived people for vaccination.
On the demand side, there are still multitudes of people who are scared of vaccination. I read in a newspaper that a district magistrate in Madhya Pradesh had ordered all the government employees under his jurisdiction to vaccinate themselves in order to get their salaries. In UP Barabanki's village, the villagers jumped into a river to escape from the authorities because they did not wish to be vaccinated. Some places are also offering lucrative rewards for people who agree to vaccinate themselves. This is an interesting development. A person who does not want to vaccinate himself or herself may claim it to be a matter of freedom. However, in the process, he/she is threatening the "right to life" of others around him/her. I do not recommend coercive measures, albeit it is pertinent to persuade the sceptics with proper facts and information.
The government needs to come out of its ivory tower to address the concerns. There have to be proper awareness drives. Celebrities should be roped in for propaganda of the message as was the case during the first wave when Amitabh Bachchan's voice was used as a caller tune to advise people to wear masks, use sanitisers and maintain social distance. The government has been guilty of taking the second wave way too lightly: given the leisurely campaigning for elections in Bengal, the uncontrolled swelling of crowds in Kumbh Mela, and the benevolent distribution of vaccines to other countries.
A large part of the blame, moreover, should also go to the media for the negative reporting of incidents. I have read many newspaper articles which would easily deter a person from vaccination. If I literally translate one such headline in a popular regional news portal, it read "Doctor dies despite double doses of vaccination". The media outlet prefers to avoid the other health ailments which the said doctor might have had and attempts to show the vaccines in poor light. This negative presentation creates a natural repulsion in some of the readers. The media should refrain from lopsided reporting and instead promote positive things such as the case of America where only 77 of over 87 million people who got vaccinated till 20 April died due to Covid. It is a small fraction that should not be a deterrent. Instead of focusing on the 77, who may have had other critical ailments alongside Covid, the media should actively influence people to get vaccinated.
The vaccination centres need to be corrected with priority as well. They can't be allowed to spread the virus, against which they are primarily designed. The government should deploy more police personnel, who must be sensitised and guided about the importance of distancing and discipline. More chairs should also be made available in each centre to ensure that people can safely sit there for thirty minutes after vaccination.
It is important to vaccinate the entire population at the earliest. We are safe as long as everyone else is safe. In this context, I would like to quote Judith Butler who stresses "the fact that one's life is always in some sense in the hands of the other… a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all". The shared vulnerability paves the way for mutual dependence. We must, therefore, help others who are willing to get vaccinated but do not have the basic technical skills. We should properly enlighten people around us that vaccines won't harm. They would only shield us against this virus.
(The author who has earlier worked in United Bank of India and Central University of Odisha is currently a Senior Research Fellow at NISER, HBNI, India)