Take the lead

Removing vaccine hesitancy will require sustained engagement at community level. Political leaders must take on responsibility.

India’s reoriented vaccination strategy, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 7, kicks in from today, with the Centre procuring 75 per cent of the shots and distributing them to the states for free. This is expected to remove the supply deficit that has hobbled anti-Covid inoculation in the past two months. But the project will also require a push on another front. Just as many people have anxiously waited their turn for the shots, several others have, reportedly, been reluctant to go to the vaccinators. Misinformation and misplaced beliefs have led to suspicions about the potential ill-effects of the shots, especially in large pockets of rural India. Allaying fears, removing scepticism and combating vaccine hesitancy will require sustained engagement at the community-level, and even door-to-door counselling. Creating a circle of trust will require a broad-spectrum effort with critical roles for elected political leaders, among others.

Its basic premise is not very complicated: Follow the science . Regulatory bodies and government agencies must, of course, conduct themselves transparently, answer queries and remove doubts with alacrity. But the work of vaccinators becomes difficult when vaccine safety issues get embroiled in adversarial politics. Unfortunately, this cardinal principle has been violated — examples include SP leader Akhilesh Yadav’s denigration of Covaxin as the “BJP vaccine”, and, most recently, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera wading into the fuss over the use of calf serum in the Bharat Biotech manufactured shots. State governments and some Opposition leaders did raise valid questions about vaccine shortage and, along with the Supreme Court, pushed the government to change its strategy. But the political leadership, as a whole, has not taken ownership of the vaccine hesitancy crisis. They must lose no time now in reaching out to their constituencies and party workers at the grass roots level with the message: No one is safe till everyone is safe and the vaccine is the best known shield against the virus.

The experience of the successful polio vaccination drive shows that the rumour mills go bust once community-level and panchayat leaders get involved in the project. During the current pandemic too, a growing body of reportage shows that the involvement of panchayat leaders has been crucial in winning over vaccine sceptics. The need for scaling up these efforts should acquire greater urgency in light of the alarming surge of the virus in rural areas and the threat of a third wave powered by potentially more infectious variants. Leaders cutting across party lines must show the way.

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