COVID Vaccination
An anti-Covid vaccination camp was organized in Jamli of Chikhaldara tehsil in Melghat recently. (Photo: Gyandev Yevale)

Pune, Maharashtra:“People are not ready to go to the local government hospital to get treated for Corona. They think that from there the doctor will send them to the district hospital in Amravati, where there will be no treatment. They will only get sick and die. Even their dead body will be secretively disposed by the officers and family members will not be able to perform his last rites.”

This was the response from Gulab Bhilavekar, of Titanda village near Chikhaldara tehsil in the Melghat area of Maharashtra, when asked how prepared local health services were to tackle Covid-19. It is a grim assessment but one that reveals decades of disconnect between people and the state-run health system in many rural parts of India.

Melghat, located on the Satpura hills in Amravati district of Maharashtra, near its border with Madhya Pradesh, is a major tiger reserve area and a popular destination for tourists. There are more than sixty villages on this range in two tehsils named Chikhaldara and Dharani and up to 90% people of living here are from the Korku Adivasi community.

The population is mainly dependent on minor forest produce, labor and rained farming for their livelihood. The Melghat area also has very high rates of infant and maternal mortality, mostly amidst the Adivasi population.

During the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, 16 villages of Melghat were identified as ‘Corona Hot Spots’. While in the cities residents throng to vaccination centers, waiting in long lines for their turn, in rural areas like Melghat people are running away in fear of the vaccine. But people’s mistrust of the health system remains a major challenge for the administration here.

COVID Response Watch LogoFor example, when a vaccination camp was organized in Girgiti village near Chikhaldara in the first week of May, hardly two persons could be vaccinated there, while the population of this village is about one and a half thousand. The same situation prevails in many nearby villages like Varud, Anjangaon, Paratwada and Achalpur.

In this regard, Tehsil Medical Officer Satish Pradhan says that people here believe that if they are vaccinated, they will die after becoming very ill. Therefore, they are avoiding getting vaccinated in the camps set up by the health department in village-village. However, he admits, “we are slowly becoming successful in explaining the benefits of vaccines to people and allaying their fear.”

Apart from fear of dying due to neglect locals are also avoiding  government hospitals as they believe their own tribal doctors are much more skilled at curing diseases. As local journalist Gyandev Yewale points out the tribal people in Melghat believe that only a Bhagat (tribal doctor) can cure many serious diseases ranging from tuberculosis and kidney disease to malaria. That is why they are shunning the government’s vaccine and medicines and are eating the Bhagat‘s indigenous herbs even in cases of serious illness.

When the administration organizes a camp for vaccination in a village, all the villagers hide in the fields and forests from morning till evening under the pretext of work.

Gyandev Yevale explains, “Many people also say that they are hardworking and their food and drink are also good, so they will not get Corona due to having a strong body.” According to government records, more than 90 thousand people have been infected with Covid-19 in Amravati district so far, of which about one and a half thousand patients have died. In this regard, Dr Chandan Pimplekar, posted at the Primary Health Center, Temerusoda, says that the cases related to infection increased by twenty to twenty-five times in the villages of Melghat in the second wave as compared to the first wave Covid. Despite this, people remain discouraged about getting vaccines.

To distrust of the people towards the health system is illustrated by the case of Semadoh village near Chikhaldara. Here, in April this year, when a woman became seriously ill with Covid-19 health workers reached her home to get her admitted to the hospital, She refused to accompany the health workers and succumbed to Covid while receiving treatment from Bhagat.

Later, when local officials reached her house to conduct her last rites under the Covid protocol, the family members refused to hand over the body of the woman and after keeping the body at their house for the entire night. She was cremated only the next morning according to tribal customs.

Sanjay Ingle, an active social worker of Melghat area, believes that the social media is also playing a big role in spreading mistrust towards the health system. He says, “Village youth have been connected to the Internet through smartphones. In such a situation, if any death due to Covid happens after vaccination the vaccine itself is being blamed. This information is shared widely on WhatsApp”.

“That’s why there is a fear among the villagers regarding the vaccine and many villagers are saying that ‘they will die, but they will not get the vaccine’”, he says.

According to local journalist Gyandev Ingle, in this disaster, the government is finding it difficult to change people’s perceptions immediately. Many people even think that the government wants to reduce the population and the entire vaccine campaign is part of a sterilization program.

There is an economic and livelihood angle also to the anti-vaccine sentiment. People are also not showing enthusiasm about getting the vaccines due to the problem of employment. As Lakhi Rathore, a resident of Chikhaldara, says, “After vaccination, many times fever comes and the man is not in a condition to do any work. Most of the families in Melghat work as laborers to feed their families. That’s why people think that if they get sick after taking the vaccine, where will the money come from and what will the children of their family eat!”

That is why even if anganwadi workers, ASHA volunteers, health workers and revenue workers somehow reach remote villages on two wheelers, people run away towards the fields, forests and hills. Their livelihood is more important for them. The daily wages in the Melghat region is the lowest in comparison to the average wages of other parts of the state.

Despite all outreach being disrupted due to the strict lockdown related restrictions some efforts are being made to change this attitude of the people regarding vaccination.  According to Dr Chandan Pimplekar, who works in a government hospital, “Teams of health workers are holding meetings at night and trying to change the perceptions of the people. Apart from this, videos showing the benefits of vaccine in the Korku dialect are also available on social media.”

At the same time, according to social worker Sanjay Ingle tribal youth are sitting unemployed at home and MGNREGA work has stopped in many villages of Melghat.

“If the government has to win the trust of the people and fight against Corona with community participation, then it will have to suggest ways to provide employment to them. Success on the vaccination front will come only if there is work on the employment front also”, he says.

(Shirish Khare has been associated with rural journalism for a long time and has been continuously reporting on the economic, social and health impacts of rural life during the Corona pandemic.)


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