Last month, a street vendor from an East Khasi Hills village told Sunday Monitor how he and his family are eagerly waiting for the Covid-19 vaccination. “We have no doubt about our immunity but my wife and I do not want to take any risk. Hopefully, next week we will get our vaccines. We would have liked our children to get the shots too but doctors are saying children are not eligible,” the man, who had only primary education, had continued the conversation as buyers were a handful.
The middle-aged man’s comment was in contradiction to what many educated citizens in Shillong and other parts of the state believe about the vaccination. Not everyone is in consensus that the vaccination is necessary. While some people believe there is no need for vaccine as it is still in the trial stage, others’ hesitancy is backed by superstitions or based on fake reports circulating in the media and on social media platforms.
Maya Goldenberg of University of Pittsberg points out another important factor behind vaccine hesitancy in her book, Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science. “The debates over value versus evidence-based medicine are the outer layer of a deep divide between scientists and the public—a crisis of trust which shapes vaccine hesitancy. Perceived superiority of science, and expertise over the lay opinion, increasing technological intrusion, and multi-culturalism are some of the broader contextual factors that explain the division between science and public,” she was quoted in the journal, The Lancet.
Lack of authentic information from experts on the public forum is, in fact, an important factor in many citizens staying away from vaccination. The void, meanwhile, is filled up by misinformation. A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) shows that many people are complacent because of information they read on social media and WhatsApp. Myths like the vaccine doses will affect fertility and health of pregnant women have shadowed the power of logic. About 90% of the people who succumbed to Covid-19 in East Khasi Hills were not vaccinated.
Complacency & cure
Vaccine hesitancy is not a new coinage but it has become a popular usage during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many like Best Kurbah, headman of Mawlai Phudmuri, believes vaccination cannot be compulsory and people have the right choose. The 58-year-old citizen has not been vaccinated and says he does not have health complications. “As a strong believer of Christianity, I would say I was vaccinated by the blood of Christ,” he says and adds that over 60% of the population in his locality has been inoculated.
Recently, several religious leaders met the state government representatives and assured that they are in support of vaccination. They also urged the government to take action against those who are refusing to get the shots. Archbishop Victor Lyngdoh too has encouraged people to go for vaccination.
“All this time, we have been praying for some means and ways to overcome the pandemic. The vaccine is a gift to help us. People should follow whatever order the government is giving,” he said.
Social activist Agnes Kharshiing said she has not taken the vaccine shots because she wants more information about it and the disease. “The World Health Organisation is yet to find the origin of the disease. Then how can I believe that the vaccine will definitely protect me. Forcing someone to take vaccine doses is violation of human rights,” she added.
A 48-year-old citizen told Sunday Monitor on condition of anonymity that he has read about the side-effects of the doses and saw some of his relatives having severe side effects. “I am not sure how my body will react to the jab. I am comorbid and what if it has some fatal effect? I am simply worried to take the doses because even experts are not sure what kind of side-effects can occur,” he added.
Many citizens who have already taken the first dose or have finished the vaccination course have complained about side-effects like fever, body ache and mild fever. A few have experienced severe side-effects like high fever that continued for days, nausea and severe headache. These have made other non-inoculated citizens wary about the jab.
Besides Meghalaya, other northeastern states have reported strong resistance to vaccination. Tripura, which has the highest vaccination coverage in the North East, had to fight the initial vaccination hesitancy. But the state government aggressively used awareness programmes and public messages to drive home the message that vaccination was the only way to fight the pandemic.
The Meghalaya government too has stepped up on the gas to complete vaccination of eligible citizens. It has undertaken sensitization of healthcare workers, set up block war rooms and mobilised frontline workers to spread awareness on the jab and organised targeted vaccination drives, among other things.
Localities like RR Colony (99.7%) and Nongrim Hills (80%) have shown promising vaccination numbers. “There was a lot of encouragement from the Dorbar. We also ran poster and door-to-door campaigns in the locality. Headmen of 15 localities came together and put up their photos on banners, saying they were vaccinated. The campaigns started right at the time when vaccination started and continued for several weeks,” said BL Mary, headman of Nongrim Hills, when talking about overcoming the hesitancy in his locality.
Mary admitted that there is still some who are not convinced and the Dorbar is making all efforts to make them aware of the situation. “We are also planning a meeting with church leaders here,” he added.
Magistrate Monica Shira, who is in charge of RR Colony, said the residents in the locality are cooperative and well-informed. “It was the willingness of the residents that helped in achieving high vaccination coverage,” she said.
The state government wants to achieve full vaccination coverage in the next three months and is aggressively working on the target. The Centre too is helping in sensitising people.
In the history of mankind, Covid-19 vaccination is the fastest developed inoculation. The pandemic and its deep impact on daily life, global economy and healthcare prompted scientists and researchers to get innovative. Once the herd immunity against the highly mutating virus is obtained, it will another victory of science. But to achieve that goal, there has to be a two-way communication system between the public and the authorities concerned so that all queries about the vaccine are answered and myths are busted.