Rural Sultanpur's 'covid warrior' pradhans battle vaccine hesitancy

Rural Sultanpur's 'covid warrior' pradhans battle vaccine hesitancy

Rural Sultanpur's 'covid warrior' pradhans battle vaccine hesitancy

Sultanpur's village Pradhans are walking the talk to get more people to accept vaccines.

Sultanpur: On a warm summer day of May 2021, Mandani Singh (40), an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) from Banbahasirkhinpur in Akhand Nagar block in Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur district, was on duty as part of the frontline team inviting villagers to get vaccinated. As Singh, who has been an ASHA for the last 15 years, was speaking to people about the vaccine's benefits, one of the villagers started verbally abusing her.

“We were, as usual, trying to explain to the villagers the importance of the vaccine in the fight against the coronavirus. But the man used vulgar language and threatened us with violence if we tried to convince him further,” said Singh. The situation became so intense that the local police had to be called to sort it out. The ASHAs then became wary of pushing the cause of vaccination amongst villagers. “We were scared,” she added. 

This is not an isolated case. Vaccine hesitancy is being observed amongst several villages of Sultanpur district. Dr AP Tripathi, who is in charge of the CHC (Community Healthcare Center) in Sultanpur’s Dubeypur block, said that “more than half of the villagers are hesitant to get vaccinated because their relatives told them that they would die because of it. They connect even natural deaths to vaccines. However, no deaths have been reported in the district because of the vaccine.” 

Dr Tripathi felt that this hesitancy is prevalent amongst those who are not educated, as they more easily believe in rumours spread through social media and word-of-mouth. “When a vaccination camp was set up in a village, only 30 people came forward to get jabbed. It was a huge disappointment for us. However, the number of people increased to 100 people during the second camp,” he added. 

Nanhelal (39), a potter from Dubeypur block’s Narharpur village, wasn’t one of them. He didn’t even let his 55-year-old mother get vaccinated. “No one is ready to get vaccinated in my village. We have heard from many people that the vaccine is not real,” he said. Many villagers also believe that the vaccine will cause ‘incurable diseases’ or kill them. 

A vaccination camp underway in Kanpa village of Baldirai tehsil in Sultanpur (Picture courtesy: Bilal Khan)

Vaccination numbers

According to Dr AN Rai, the District Immunisation Officer (DIO) of Sultanpur, ‘the district has 5,25,721 people aged above 45. Out of this, 1,64,911 have taken the first dose, and 33,911 have taken the second dose.’ In the 18-44 age group, 19,304 of 1018304 have been vaccinated as of June 13, despite there being no reports of vaccine shortage in the district. This makes up only about 2% of the population in this age group. 

It was also observed by the Pradhans, officials and doctors that Muslims appeared to be more hesitant about taking the vaccines than other communities.

Pradhan Firoz Khan from Dhahafirozpur, Dubeypur block, said that Muslims are more scared because of the political climate. “Many of them think that the coronavirus isn't real. And that all this is just a conspiracy by the government in power to reduce their population. Because of misinformation spread through Whatsapp and word of mouth, they think the vaccines will kill them,” he said. Dr Tripathi also echoed this, saying illiteracy among Muslims makes them more susceptible to rumours and deepens vaccine hesitancy. “That is why we requested a few Muslim clerics to spread awareness during sermons so that the community will come forward to get vaccinated,” he said.

Warriors against misinformation

Considering the level of vaccine hesitancy in the region, officials are using various methods to motivate people to get the vaccine. They are seeking help from religious leaders, important local personalities, and anyone they think can influence the residents positively. The District Magistrate of Sultanpur, Raveesh Gupta also acknowledged the efforts of Pradhans in those villages where the highest number of people turned up for vaccinations. 

“We, as frontline workers, took the vaccine first so that villagers would be motivated. Religious leaders and people who have some dominance or power in the villages are cooperating with us to convince people by taking the vaccines themselves and creating awareness. The Pradhans are also being honoured for the same,” said Dr Dharmendra Tripathi, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Sultanpur.

So far, 30 Pradhans of different villages have been honoured as ‘Corona Warriors’. 

Raja Singh, the Pradhan of Jarai Kala Village of Sultanpur’s Baldirai block, has managed to get 500 villagers of 8200 vaccinated so far. Many of them have also taken the second dose. Singh went door to door to convince villagers to get vaccinated. 

“There was fear in many villagers due to the rumours around the vaccines. But as more and more people from the village came forward to get vaccinated, many more mustered the courage. Now the entire village is ready to get vaccinated. Apart from motivating the villagers, I also provided a transport service so that they could travel to the vaccine centres for free,” said Singh, one of the awardees.

Dharmendra Tiwari, the Pradhan of Kanpa village of Baldirai tehsil, was also honoured as a Corona Warrior by the District Magistrate. Initially, Tiwari had struggled to get even a single villager vaccinated. However, he convinced them by getting his mother vaccinated first when the camp was set up in May. After that, many came forward.

“Slowly, villagers are now getting vaccinated at the centre nearby. When my mother, who is a senior citizen, got vaccinated, villagers were convinced that the vaccine was good for them and will help them fight against the deadly coronavirus,” said Tiwari. 

More than 250 out of 5,800 voters in Kanpa village have been vaccinated so far, according to the Pradhan. It is hoped that the Pradhans’ tactics coupled with aggressive awareness drives will create a similar impact in the district’s other villages

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