Bad roads, faulty tech and conspiracies affect vaccinations in rural Manipur

Bad roads, faulty tech and conspiracies affect vaccinations in rural Manipur

Bad roads, faulty tech and conspiracies affect vaccinations in rural Manipur

Medical teams struggle to reach remote hamlets to conduct vaccination camps even as residents are turned off from visiting vaccination centres because of conspiracy theories and digital disconnect. 

Imphal: Vungdeih (45) from Muallum in Manipur’s Churachandpur district has been wary of COVID-19 vaccines. “My husband and my son were down with high fever for over three days after the jab. I am really scared,” she said. In Tamenglong, conspiracy theories on WhatsApp have kept locals away from medical camps, informed the district immunisation officer (DIO).

The distance to the vaccination centres at Tamenglong and Kamjong districts is compounded by the rough roads. At the Churachandpur headquarters, vaccine registrations are buggy as officials fumble with technology. Together, these factors have retarded the overall vaccination pace in four Manipur districts ­that also includes Pherzawl.

According to the state health department, 5.82 lakh of the 19.39 lakh adults were vaccinated between January 16 and June 30. Among the immunised lot, only 84,345 went for the second jab.

Journalist and co-founder of the online news portal Hill Digest, Joshua Amo said, “There are no primary health centres in most villages in Pherzawl. The medical staffers have to go to the location to provide vaccinations.”  

Tough road to complete vaccination 

The medical teams’ access to interior villages is slowed down by the rugged roads. Cramped in perpetuity and muddy in monsoon, many groups have had to rethink their missions.

Dr Prakash Chandra, the District Immunisation Officer in Kamjong district, explained that they require a 4x4 vehicle, such as a smart utility vehicle or a Bolero for the interior roads. “We are moving in an ambulance. The team has often encountered problems. We used to get stuck on the roads. Recently our vehicle got a leak,” he recalled.

Travelling to the neighbouring Tamenglong district is an arduous task, according to Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr Gracy Majachunglu. The rains batter the routes. “In many cases even the medical team got sick, and some of them tested positive. There are occasions when they had to cancel their trips,” she said. 

The dire road network has proven disastrous for the Tuthapi hamlet in Churachandpur. Over 50 per cent of people here had tested positive, and 40 households were under quarantine. Village volunteer Songkhosiam said, “We have not been vaccinated. No medical team has set foot in the village for vaccination.” 

Those locals who travelled to the makeshift camp in Churachandpur district headquarters in Lamka for the vaccine met befuddled medical staffers. They are still figuring out the digitisation of registrations. Most were given quick and abrupt training and could not deal with issues like conducting registrations in case of the absence of a telephone number. Many senior citizens who did not have a mobile brought their children’s numbers written on small pieces of paper, not wanting to miss the vaccine window.  

Lamka-based journalist and YouTuber Lian Langel told 101Reporters, “In Churachandpur district, most people possess an identity document but not necessarily a phone. Sometimes, the data entry process would encounter false registrations in the name of frontline workers.” 

And, when the internet goes on the blip or the mobile phones malfunction, the process fizzles out momentarily. The technological snags have not been conducive for luring the senior citizens, most of whom are easily influenced by misinformation about the vaccine. Tamenglong deputy commissioner Armstrong Pame confirmed, “The problem lies mostly with the older generation — people aged 45 and above. Those in the 18+ group are making good progress.”

Vaccine recipients in Tamenglong holding up messages encouraging more people to take the COVID-19 jabs (Picture courtesy of Ninglun Hanghal)

The WhatsApp curse 

Rumours bog down the older generation. Dr Chandra, the DIO in Phungyar of Kamjong district — where only 5,673 people are vaccinated — blamed WhatsApp tales for the inadequate response. “I have received videos, too. They are in the Meitei language. Messages like ‘vaccinated people will have a life span of two years’ or ‘when there is no cure for cancer, how could a vaccine be developed so soon?’ have caused tremendous fear and reluctance among people,” Dr Chandra said. 

In Tamenglong, reports of COVID-19 deaths after the first jab has hampered the progress, informed CMO Dr Majachunglu. “The medical teams have been going from village to village. We have mobilised the Asha workers at the block level, encouraging them to visit every house,” she said.

Yet, there are only a few takers for the vaccines. Commissioner of Pherzawl district, Pi Manmuanching, said, “Besides the misinformation, reports of death ­after vaccination — such as that of a 48-year-old Anganwadi worker — has added to the fear.” 

A fresh strain of fear has also emerged from certain religious quarters. 101Reporters heard from a few locals about tribal Christians abstaining from vaccines owing to their faith. The rumours were dispelled immediately by doctors and reverend Prim Vaipehi. Whatever fear may have prevailed, Vaipehi said, is perhaps similar to the kind that reigned during the issuance of Aadhaar cards in 2010.

“Some independent churches and preachers linked Aadhaar card ­— which was basically an identity number — to the biblical number of the beast or the anti-Christ, popularly known as ‘666’. They practically preached to stop people from making Aadhaar cards. The COVID-19 vaccination fear is also similar to that. These people are aggressive and adventurous. They are fundamentals and easily convinced… these people are found not just in Manipur or the Northeast, but across the world,” he said. 

The reverend, who is also the president of All Manipur Churches Organisation, said no mainstream churches are preaching against the vaccines. Dr Chandra also reiterated that there is no opposition from the Church. “In my presence, I witnessed two pastors from two villages coming for vaccination in Phungyar in Kamjong itself,” he said. 

Creating incentives

The district administrations want to plug the gaps created by fear and the absence of medical facilities. They plan to use the incentives tool like an award of Rs 50,000 for villages in Tamenglong with the most vaccinated people. An individual who can mobilise a maximum number of vaccinations — with 50 per cent being minimum — will achieve Rs 20,000. The consideration period lay between June 15 and July 15. Dr Majachunglu said, “The reward comes as a tremendous boost. Now, even village chiefs have contacted us for vaccination.”

The youth member secretary at Muallum in Churachandpur, Lal, has convinced 140 people from the 150 households in Muallum to take the vaccine. He feels the need to assure more villagers as the district administration is readying a medical team for its second visit to the village.

As more officials are being prepped, the news of incoming medical camps has reached southern-most villages like Thanlon in Pherzawl. People are optimistic. A Thanlon local, Lulun, said, “If a medical team is coming to the village, then everyone will take the vaccine.” 

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