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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Vaccine Milestone: The Foot Soldiers

The Indian Express takes a look at some of the healthcare workers who overcame struggles and vaccine hesitancy to make it possible.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Shaju Philip , Divya Goyal , Naveed Iqbal , Aishwarya Mohanty | New Delhi |
Updated: October 22, 2021 6:46:55 am
Dr Rinchin Neema had to journey seven hours by car, followed by an arduous trek, braving heavy rain during the monsoon in July. (Express)

Ten months after the first phase of the Covid-19 vaccination drive began, India hit the landmark 100-crore jabs on Thursday. As the country celebrates the milestone, The Indian Express takes a look at some of the healthcare workers who overcame struggles and vaccine hesitancy to make it possible.

Arunachal Pradesh

‘Impossible for people to come to us, we go to them’
Dr Rinchin Neema (41)– District Immunisation officer, Tawang

Dr Rinchin Neema has led several Covid-19 vaccination drives since March. For the 41-year-old, one of the most challenging trips was when he and his team undertook a 12-hour-long trek to vaccinate a group of yak grazers in the remote border village of Lugthang, 14,000 ft above sea level.

A journey of seven hours by car was followed by an arduous trek from the base of the hill, featuring heavy rains during the monsoon in July. The team, dressed in raincoats and gumboots, had to navigate a terrain which was extremely inhospitable: slippery, muddy and steep.“But that is just another day if you are an immunisation officer in a remote place like Tawang,” said Neema.

The official has administered vaccines in other remote places such as Mago and Jethang, the last Indian villages before the Tibet border. “In places like Arunachal Pradesh, where most people reside in remote areas, it is impossible for them to come to us. So we have to go to them… the last Indian citizens,” he said.

Jammu & Kashmir

‘The younger age group was the toughest to convince’
Ishfaq Shabir (25)- Nurse, Baramulla

Over the last two years, Ishfaq Shabir has been working as the main nurse in Boniyar block of Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Everyday, he would pick up the ice box and travel to villages right at the Line of Control. Away from the city of Srinagar and its power centres, he said, resistance to vaccines was high.

The health worker said when vaccination for the 18-44 age group was opened, dealing with the younger generation was a tougher task than any uphill trek in the villages.

“With the amount of misinformation on Covid-19 online, the generation that consumes this media was the toughest to convince,” he said. Camps could not be held given the difficulty of the terrain. So, the team administered door-to-door vaccination to over 60 per cent of the population of this block.

Kerala

‘No complaints… Just want leg work to be acknowledged’
Subaidha Shahul (50), ASHA worker, Idukki

An ASHA worker for the last 12 years, Subaidha has been in the forefront of Covid-19 vaccination. A meagre monthly honorarium of Rs 6,500 has been pending for the last two months. Her husband Shahul is indisposed and can’t go for work, while Subaidha, who contracted Covid in April, is still suffering breathing problems.

Subaidha Shahul contracted Covid in April and is still suffering breathing problems.

Since vaccinations began for the general public, she has had many hectic days, finding the right candidate as per the government norms. Even in April, when she was tested Covid positive and remained under home quarantine, health officials kept her engaged.

“Yet, I am happy to be part of the Covid-19 warriors. Since vaccination gained momentum in May, I have been doing leg work. Going from one house to another, scouting for the eligible persons to be persuaded to take the jabs at the local vaccination centre,’’ said Subaida. “I have no complaints. We want our leg work to be attested.”

Subaidha only has one worry — those who haven’t taken the first dose of the vaccine so far. “Of the 1,065 eligible persons in my ward, 45 are reluctant…I am trying to convince them,” she said.

Punjab

We were never rude, just polite
Dr Seema Garg (52), District Immunization officer, Hoshiarpur

When Dr Seema Garg joined as the Hoshiarpur district immunization officer on January 1, the first major task she had at hand was the Covid-19 vaccination drive. There was massive vaccine hesitancy in  Punjab, with not many healthcare workers coming forward.

Months later, as the country celebrates 100 crore doses being administered, the Hoshiarpur district has attained 82.4 per cent first-dose coverage of its estimated eligible population — higher than Punjab’s average of 75 per cent. Also, 45 per cent of its eligible population is now fully vaccinated.

India's Vaccinators, Punjab |'We were never rude, just polite'

Dr Garg says the biggest challenge was to shun vaccine hesitancy not among the general public, but the department’s own healthcare workers, and to convince ASHAs to get jabbed for their own safety.

“My message to them was simple: You are not doing this (to get vaccinated) for the government, but for your own safety. There was no way that we could have gotten rude and forced them to get vaccinated. It had to be a polite request and we kept appealing and circulating those messages in WhatsApp,” she said.

Odisha

‘Informing people about the new disease and the vaccine was definitely a challenge’
Ranjita Sabar (26), healthcare worker, Rayagada

Every Wednesday since May, Ranjita Sabar has been covering over 10 km on foot, walking through a forest and wading through streams, to reach the remotest villages in Kurli gram panchayat. The villagers here are all members of the Dongria Kondh — a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). Monsoons have only made the journey even more taxing.

As cases began to rise in early May, a vaccination centre was set up at the foot of the hill after rigorous awareness campaigns in the villages. But convincing them to take the vaccine has been a rather challenging task.

On many occasions, Sabar, an ASHA worker and an anganwadi worker reached villages only to find all the houses locked as people hid in the forests, fearing that the vaccine might kill them.

“Covering difficult terrain was not the challenge… Informing people about the new disease and the vaccine was definitely a challenge… We spent days talking to them individually and in groups, convincing them that even we took the same jab and nothing happened. Everything fell into place eventually,” Sabar said.

Telangana

‘I tell them I am moving around freely as I am fully vaccinated’
Chekala Lalitha (35), ASHA worker, Ranga Reddy district

Lalitha, one among the numerous ASHA workers who form the backbone of the vaccination drive in Telangana, goes door to door at Shadnagar in Ranga Reddy district. She says vaccination is a unique challenge because Shadnagar is a well-developed urban area but only a few residents step out to get vaccinated.

Dressed in a white cotton saree, Lalitha, along with a nurse, mostly has to coax residents to take the vaccine. “The first response when I knock on a door is that they do not want to take the vaccine. They say they have heard that a person taking the vaccine falls sick or develops high fever… With some of the residents, no amount of convincing works,” she says.

She says she is surprised by the objections and excuses given by people while refusing the vaccine. “Many residents still believe in rumours and hearsay that taking the vaccine will make them fall ill. If one or two persons who took the vaccine get fever or body ache, that gets amplified and the news spreads everywhere and everyone turns against the vaccine,” she said.

So, how does she convince people to finally take the vaccine? “First, I try to dispel the myths, and tell them falling ill after taking the vaccine is rare. Then I tell them that healthworkers are able to move around freely because we ourselves are fully vaccinated, and it gives good protection against Covid,” she says.

Chhattisgarh

‘We had to ensure some people getting high fever don’t discourage the entire region’
Reeta Fulmadri (28), ANM health worker, Bijapur

Reeta Fulmadri administers the vaccine at Bade Sunkanpalli village.

Reeta Fulmadri can’t forget the day after Independence Day, when she got stuck in neck-deep water in a nullah on the way to Chote Sunkanpalli village in Bijapur district. Fulmadri, 28, is the second-in-command at the Maoist-affected district’s Lingagiri sub-center. She was trekking to the village when the nullah suddenly filled up with water.

“Right in the middle, I lost my footing because of the water flow, and when I regained balance, the water was up to my neck,” recounted Fulmadri.

Responsible for vaccination in six villages that fall under the Lingagiri sub-center in Usoor tehsil, Fulmadri had to cross more than geographical barriers to vaccinate more than 5,000 people. In June, with vaccine hesitancy at its peak, she organised sessions with different target groups, before taking the vaccine to the village. “People were worried that the vaccine would cause impotence or sterility. I would tell them that I am an unmarried woman from the village and I have gotten vaccinated. Why would I not want children for myself or others?”

Fulmadri’s trips needed clearance as well, from both the police and the Maoists. “We got threatened by some villagers that if something would happen, we would have to answer to the andar wale (a euphemism for Maoists). But since I am from the region, I could convince them,” she said.

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