The district administration roped in village chiefs, self-help women’s groups, doctors and other local influencers to alleviate fear, misconceptions in Masalia Block.
Dumka: Rubaya Kisku (60), a senior citizen from the Santhal Adivasi community, appeared content after getting his COVID-19 jab at a vaccination centre in Masalia Block of Jharkhand. His daughter-in-law, Turki Murmu, who had accompanied him, said she does not doubt the vaccine’s efficacy. At the same centre, two women, Jiyamuni Hansada and Meneka Devi, patiently waited for their vaccination certifications. They, too, proclaimed their belief in the vaccine and also recounted the importance of the certificates.
This was not the scenario in April this year in the Adivasi-dominated Dumka district — often called Jharkhand’s sub-capital — when the second wave of COVID-19 hit India. Then, superstitions and misconceptions about the vaccine were rife in the Santal Pargana’s Adivasi belt and most panchayat jurisdictions. The locals here preferred traditional/rural medicine to treat even the most serious of illnesses. And, when the fatalities in April made headlines, people further refrained from going for the vaccines.
These notions posed a veritable challenge to the administration’s outreach initiatives. “The Adivasis are a close-knit community. They make collective decisions, like the one they made about not taking the vaccine. Moreover, the tribes and the administration are not well-connected,” said Dumka’s deputy commissioner Rajeshwari B.
Determined to make a breakthrough, the district administration looked closely at the social structure, known as the ‘self-rule’ system, of the community. It mobilised influential people within the community to alleviate the fears that had gravely affected the vaccination pace.
Help within the community
Masalia’s block development officer Pankaj Kumar Ravi said, “We sought help within the Adivasi community’s social sphere after the district administration instructed us. The village chiefs and their associates were gathered in baithaks and trained to alleviate other residents’ fears. They were given their first jabs.”
Along with the village chief, the administration vaccinated other influential locals like the sakhi mandal (women’s self-help groups) members, social workers, rural doctors, and ration dealers, among others. Then, they were deemed an example for the rest of the community.
“The locals were told that the vaccinated lot was healthy and possessed a shield against COVID-19. Even if they caught the virus, they would regain their health soon,” Ravi said.
The awareness bid encouraged Masalia Block’s anganwadi workers to step up awareness efforts. They were vaccinated on priority as they fall under the essential services category.
Goasol village’s anganwadi worker Sarita Devi said, “We got vaccinated in January and have been fine since. We have been trying to present our health as proof to others.”
Sarita Devi and her colleagues conducted health inspection drives across villages in the block. The poshan sakhis (women workers who look after nutrition needs) joined the awareness efforts. They counselled pregnant women on COVID-19 prevention. One such sakhi, Bibirani Murmu, who belongs to the Santhal community, has conducted many awareness sessions for her community.
In fact, Goasol village has been one of the best performing villages in terms of vaccination rates and it falls under the Ranga panchayat which has topped the district. The village head here, Dwarka Prasad Manjhi, has embraced the role of a front line warrior – from fighting the coronavirus epidemic to promoting vaccinations.
Rajeshwari B believes that the personal touch has brought much-needed rationality into the scenario. “They (village chief, associates and others) share a better bond with the community. These people are approached to solve issues regarding rural land,” she said.
To further increase the awareness outreach, the district administration has asked the rural health practitioners to counsel the people. “After all, they are the people’s primary point of contact when it comes to health issues,” said Rajeshwari B.
Rumours and damage control
In April, the medical practitioners had seen a particular surge in misconceptions about vaccines. Most patients worried about deteriorating health or even death following the jab. The rumours hurt the vaccination drive that was gathering momentum in the block.
“The vaccination pace was satisfactory in February and March. Fear reigned among people when the death toll from the second wave mounted in April. Misconceptions grew manifold, making it difficult for us to vaccinate people,” medical officer of Dumka’s Masalia Block, Dr Pravin Kumar, told 101 Reporters.
The misconceptions grew when a few people contracted fever during the second phase of vaccinations. “The number of people turning up for vaccines eventually declined. As low as 100 people were vaccinated in a day,” said Rajeshwari B.
The district administration then issued a stern warning for rumour mongers. “They were warned of action under the Disaster Control Act. Further, the senior officers were deputed to awareness camps in the rural areas,” she added.
Furthermore, the locals were reminded of routine immunization programs carried out among children in the past to draw a parallel with the COVID-19 vaccination drive. “Many vaccines are given to the kids till they turn five to fortify them against many diseases,” Rajeshwari B said.
The district administration chose not to take action against the rumour mongers. Rajeshwari B believes that those who were spreading false information were also perhaps misinformed by somebody else before. As the situation improves with the vaccination picking up, the need for action appears diminished. “Everything is well now,” said Kumar.
People seem to be easing up to the idea of vaccination as well. For instance, a senior citizen from Goasol, Pavan Kumar Vaidya, said that he has taken both doses and suggested people in his vicinity do the same. Another senior citizen Lalita Devi said, “I am alive due to the vaccine, or else who knows?”
Rahul Singh is Devghar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.