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Maharashtra: Vaccine-hesitant Melghat village sets inoculation record as panchayat members lead by example

A study by the authorities showed that there was not a single village panchayat in the area where all members were vaccinated.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Pune |
Updated: June 13, 2021 9:48:14 am
(From left) SDM Dr Mittali Sethi and her team talking to Diya sarpanch Nisha Bhilarekar. (Express)

It’s an important day for Nisha Bhilarekar, the sarpanch of Diya in Dharni taluka of Amravati district. A vaccination camp is underway at her village and the 21-year-old does not want to leave any stone unturned in ensuring a good turnout.

The local Kokru music is playing on a loudspeaker, a pandal has been set up at the entrance of the village, and arrangements have been made for a feast (gaon bhoj). One after the other, people arrive to take their jab and by the end of the day, as many as 180 people of 45 years of age have been inoculated against Covid-19.

While this might sound nothing out of the ordinary given the intense competition among city residents for their shots, Bhilarekar would tell you it was not easy.

Her village is part of the tribal-dominated remote Melghat region where vaccine hesitancy is common; there were days when the vaccination teams had to return with their vials intact as no villager was ready to get vaccinated.

Compare this with Friday, when the village set the record for the highest number of inoculations in a single day in the entire block. Sixty residents had already taken their shots a few weeks back and now the village is left with only 60-odd people in the eligible age group who are still not vaccinated.

The feat was possible due to the active participation of gram panchayat members — nine out of 11 took the vaccine – who led by example by setting aside their own vaccine hesitancy and taking the shot. Of the two members who didn’t
take the shot, one is pregnant while the other is lactating.

Bhilarekar is relieved that the efforts on the part of the panchayat and the district administration have paid off. “The village had a women-only task force for Covid, and the vaccination camp was organised right at the entrance of the village. An almost festive atmosphere was created around the vaccination drive,” she said.

Like other tribal regions, vaccine hesitancy is immense in Melghat.

Dr Mittali Sethi, sub divisional magistrate (SDM), Dharni, admitted that of the 112 village panchayats in her area, around 10-12 have shown extreme resistance towards vaccination. With reports emerging of teams returning without administering any dose, the authorities, a month back, decided to shift the onus on the local representatives.

A study by the authorities showed that there was not a single village panchayat in the area where all members were vaccinated. “If the local gram panchayat members do not come forward, the local population would not feel motivated. So, during a meeting, we asked them to ensure they get themselves vaccinated,” she said.

Many agreed and one of the villages, Dharanmahu, ended up ensuring 100 per cent vaccination of its gram panchayat members.

Dr Jaynit Malviya, the incharge of the Primary Health Centre in the area, said, “The efforts to demystify the vaccination process has helped break hesitancy.”

Comprising of Dharni and Chikaldhara talukas, Sethi’s jurisdiction spreads across Melghat with the tiger reserve dotted with villages. While Chikaldhara had seen four villages reporting 100 per cent vaccination, Dharni’s villages, which are more populous, turned out to be more challenging and the administration had to come up with unique measures to break the hesitancy.

It was decided that instead of closed rooms, the vaccination drives would take place in open areas, preferably in the middle of the village, to familiarise the residents with the process. Involvement of the local representatives, of course, did its bit and the villagers opened up.

“We have realised that for the vaccination drive to be successful, it has to be held without disturbing the normal life of the villagers. So, instead of them lining up to us, it was us who reached out to them,” said Sethi.

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