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‘Vaccine didi’: How a trans woman fought fear, rumors to ensure her community got Covid-19 shots

There was a high rate of vaccine hesitancy in the community, over fears of the vaccine reacting badly with sex change hormones, and of humiliation at the vaccination centres.

July 26, 2022 11:14:05 am

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the transgender community found itself at a triple disadvantage. Their main sources of livelihood, such as singing at functions, sex work, and begging, were disrupted. Living in groups, they were at increased risk of infection. On top of this, there was a high rate of vaccine hesitancy in the community, over fears of the vaccine reacting badly with sex change hormones, and of humiliation at the vaccination centres.

In Chhattisgarh’s Durg, Kanchan Sendre, a trans woman, has taken it upon herself to dispel fears about the Covid-19 vaccine in her community. Thanks to Sendre’s efforts, in the last seven months, 65 transgendered people in Durg district have taken the shot, earning her the epithet of ‘Vaccine Didi’.

“I too had hesitations about the COVID-19 vaccine, specially as I had recently undergone a sex reassignment surgery, and after the first shot, I had fallen sick. But once I understood the importance of taking the shot, I wanted everyone in my community to get it,” Sendre says.

Sendre was convinced about the safety of the vaccine through the multiple engagements that she had with the MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity Project team, a USAID-funded initiative that helps the Central and state governments accelerate COVID-19 vaccine coverage. The Momentum Project was awarded by USAID to John Snow India Research & Training Institute Inc in 2021.

Dr Sanjay Kapur, Managing Director, John Snow India, said: “Trust building is an essential step when working with vulnerable communities. Thus, the project team knew that to reach out to transgender people, they would need someone from within the community. Vaccine hesitancy was high in this community. Most transgender people live in deras (clusters) where entry for an outsider is very difficult. We needed someone they would trust. Since Kanchan had already been working for transgender rights, we reached out to her”.

According to Sendre, many factors were responsible for the vaccine hesitancy.

“Apart from the usual rumours on social media etc,. the transgender community had some specific concerns. Many of them take sex change hormones, some are HIV positive. They did not know how their bodies would react to the vaccine. Also, many no longer identify with the gender mentioned on their official ID cards. They feared ridicule at vaccination centres. Since I understood their problems, I could convince them. I was determined I would not give up,” Sendre says.

Sendre has been working for the welfare of her community since 2008. She is a member of the Third Gender Welfare Board of the Chhattisgarh government, and runs an organisation called Sangharsh Samiti, which helps transgender people get jobs, government benefits, and social and economic acceptance.

“When I left home, I had lived in a dera for some years. I moved out to pursue college education, but I was familiar with the structure and workings of a dera and had friends living there. Also, during the lockdown, my organisation had provided ration to members of the community, so people had a level of trust in me,” Sendre says.

The process of convincing meant multiple visits to the deras, hearing out people’s problems, and explaining the need and importance of the vaccine in a manner they would understand. Thanks to Sendre’s efforts, in December 2021, vaccination camp for transgender people was held in Durg, in collaboration with the project and the state government. The benefits went beyond just COVID-19 vaccination.

At the camp, some people were found to be suffering from diabetes. They were put on medication for that. Also, the MOMENTUM Project team requested the state to send mobile medical units during the COVID-19 camps as an incentive to the community, as many don’t go for regular health checkups fearing ridicule.

Sendre is hopeful her efforts for the vaccination will also benefit her community in other ways. “My life’s mission is to pull my community from the margins. I hope this experience of getting vaccinated will embolden trans people to come forward and claim more government benefits, as equal members of the society,” she adds.

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