By Dr Gauri Agarwal
Even as a country-wide vaccination programme for Covid-19 has been underway, there have been reports of a number of people exhibiting hesitancy in taking their shots. This amounts to not only possibly compromising or undermining the efficiency of the whole programme meant for the eventual protection and safety of the entire country against the virus, it is also inherently fraught with risks of wastage of precious resources, efforts and time. Somewhere around the third week of last month, it was reported that 6.5% of vaccines equivalent to about 23 lakh vaccine doses have been wasted in the country. Among the reasons cited for this waste, covid hesitancy has been mentioned as a leading factor. For a vaccine which had been proved to be elusive to the global health and scientific community including those in India for nearly a year, any wastage of this so-called ‘elixir of sorts’ is an extremely telling commentary on the state of affairs on the ground. And it should have been avoided at any costs, whatever the reasons, least of all, due to reluctance on the part of people themselves.
Therefore it is timely that we as a people show ourselves as a more enlightened citizenry, stand up and take responsibility for our own health and give the vaccines the due importance that they deserve. Just as the entire country – and indeed the world – had rallied together and thrown its weight behind battling the virus including researching and discovering the vaccines, let’s again revive that spirit of community and collectivity and make the best use of our precious vaccines. In other words, let us launch a country-wide movement for Covid-19 vaccination.
National icons and celebrities not enough
Like most issues of public relevance, it is not as if our public figures and celebrities have not come forward already to lend their helping hand to this campaign. From political leaders to film stars to business icons to social media influencers, nearly everyone has either taken the shot in full media limelight or tweeted and posted their pictures presenting themselves as an example and a role model in an effort to amplify the need for people to follow suit and take the jabs. Led by the President, the Vice President and the Prime Minister himself, the who’s who of Indian politics have already taken their vaccine shots. Similarly, Bollywood wasn’t behind in setting this example with top actors and actresses taking the jab in full public view.
Yet, what is it that has kept many people in two minds, still contemplating one way or the other and effectively remaining on the fence as far as taking the actual shot goes. A survey by Mumbai-based Indian Institute of Human brands conducted in the last week of January and which had included about 60% of respondents from non-Metro locations – had revealed that when it came to taking vaccine shots, doctors were the most credible source of information on whether and why one should go for vaccination. And doctors were followed by neighbours and associates backed with firsthand feedback and information at 66 percent. Significantly, Bollywood stars, cricketers and politicians had ranked very low in terms of credibility as an inspirational figure for encouraging vaccination-taking.
Doctors and health professionals need to be at the forefront
So, no one can dispute the opinions and voices of doctors and health professionals who by default happen to be the truest voices of authority and knowledge for establishing the credibility of this vaccine or indeed of any other vaccine. The images of the Director, AIIMS, the country’s premier hospital, taking the shot must have been a huge inspiration. Yet, not many people would have been exposed to those images. And many of those who would have been, would not probably recognize the person taking the shot given the blizzard of media content that we are swamped with on a daily basis and the resultant low and limited attention span that we have. So, what is needed is that healthcare professionals who work on the ground and those work among the community need to step up to the plate and take up this challenge. Their duties would entail from disseminating positive information on the need for the vaccines to busting myths around the adverse consequences of the vaccines. While verbal, direct and even personalized communication would be most effective here, the language of communication must be local with formats being interesting and accessible including infographics, videos, songs, podcasts and games, among others. Admittedly, this would also consume considerable and precious time of theirs tearing them away from their primary duty of healing and treatment of patients, given the gravity of the pandemic, they need to contribute to this exercise too.
Localization of information dissemination by local endorsers the key
As such, along with launching a broader campaign on a national basis, something that we have already done, there is a need to localize the campaign within the big cities, the small towns, the districts and the villages. While state health ministries led by prominent doctors who have also been well-known public figures could take the lead, district medical officers could spearhead the campaign in districts with doctors working at primary health centres, community health centres, sub centres, and government hospitals pitching in their respective area of work. The idea is that only a first-hand source can best lend credibility to the efficacy of the vaccines and remove any misinformation or prejudices against them. Adopting a targeted approach, the government could also focus particularly on states and regions which have either low vaccine coverage or high wastage levels, or those which are witnessing high concentration of cases and even reappearance of cases in the so-called second wave.
Roping in of faith leaders/healers
Given that most Indians are innately spiritually-inclined or have deep religious beliefs, the messaging and endorsement by faith leaders could also help in building greater credibility in our vaccines. Nothing can be more potent than a combination of science and spirituality to convince our people of the goodness of the vaccines. As a corollary, vaccine companies must desist from marketing the vaccines as a typical brand. People’s sense of public duty needs to be appealed to.
So, the effort to make the vaccination programme a country-wide movement with localized strands must be combined with the reduction of wastage as well as better targeting. Given the formidable task that still lies ahead in terms of inoculating a colossal number of people to break the chain of transmission and to protect over 130 crore people eventually. After all, people’s lives are at stake. The government opening up the vaccine programme to all people above 45 years of age regardless of comorbidities would certainly help in addressing the wastage problem. And the Central government recently asking the states to keep the wastage below 1 percent is again a positive step.
(The author is Founder-Director, Genestrings Diagnostic Centre & Director, Yashoda Super-specialty Hospital. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)