Religious leaders promote Covid vaccination in Rajasthan

As 2021 ended the Government of Rajasthan made a concerted push to increase Covid vaccination rates in the state by announcing a series of disincentives. The unvaccinated it said will not be eligible for benefits under government schemes and may also have to pay fines.

While this new policy was prompted by the arrival of the Omicron variant and fears of hospital systems getting overwhelmed by rising cases, the fact was that Rajasthan had already achieved very high rates of vaccination – well above the national average. By December 2021 88.5% of the eligible population in the state had been administered the first dose, and 71.5% population was double vaccinated.

Playing a key role in convincing large sections of the population to get their Covid vaccines was a unique mix of organizations. They ranged from state agencies and civil society groups to religious leaders and bodies, with the latter helping dispel rumours and superstitions about the vaccines circulating in many parts of the state.

When the Covid vaccines were developed and released in late 2020, there were different types of misconceptions about them in many sections of society. All communities in Rajasthan had their own fears.

Master Anwar Shah, Director of Jaipur-based Al-Jamiyatul Alia, shared his experience in this regard with Covid Response Watch.

COVID Response Watch Logo“The first corona patient in Jaipur was found in Ramganj, a Muslim-dominated area and the first death also occurred here. Then there was terrible fear about this virus everywhere including Muslim society. During the first wave, there were also reports of the Muslim dead being cremated instead of being buried from many parts of the country. This created a situation of confusion among many. Religious people got angry, but due to Covid everyone was afraid of even touching the deceased. That is why then at my level, I started organizing funerals of people who died of Covid. Seeing me, some youth also came forward and started burying people according to the Covid protocol” he said.

“The anti-CAA protests, in which there was a great amount of Muslim participation, were going on at the time of the first Covid wave. That is why the rumour spread among the people that the government has introduced vaccines to eliminate them. Vaccines it was claimed destroy the ability of women to have children and also caused many diseases. Due to these rumours, the process of vaccination started very slowly. In Ramganj, the local people even attacked those who were carrying out a vaccination drive. After this, the government and the health department appointed influential people of all religions, religious leaders to help convince the masses and clear the misconceptions about the vaccine ” Anwar added.

After this, appeals were made to mosques to promote vaccination all over the state including Jaipur and messages were issued to the public to protect themselves against the Covid virus. In areas like Ramganj, only people from the Muslim community were deployed to get the vaccination done. Its effect was that Jaipur’s Ramganj was seen as a model for stopping Covid.

Similarly, religious leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities also used their influence to mobilize their community members to get vaccinated. Jasbir Singh, former chairman of the Minorities Commission of Rajasthan and an influential figure in the Sikh community, shared his experiences with Covid Response Watch.

He says, “ Initially the enthusiasm about the Covid vaccine among the people of the Sikh community was very low. But when the government asked the Gurudwaras to increase the vaccination rates, we started a campaign on behalf of our society called ‘ Vaccination as Much as Possible ‘ . The message was conveyed that the Gurudwara stands with every person in the society physically, mentally and emotionally. That is why a positive message went out to 30 thousand people of the Sikh community living in Jaipur. The target was set that the Sikh community in the entire Rajasthan should be the first to be vaccinated. To fulfil this goal, more than 100 Covid Vaccination Camps were organized by the Sikh community in Jaipur city alone.

“So far, about 90 % of the Sikh population has got the Covid vaccine” Jasbir explains.

Similarly, Acharya Avdhesh of Galta Peeth, revered by Hindus in Jaipur, said that he had conveyed the message of getting more and more vaccines, Covid appropriate behaviour, wearing masks and other steps advice by the government to prevent infection. The advantage of this was that those who were not joining the government schemes due to fear, got linked to them through religious activities and this helped in fighting the epidemic.

The government on its part also consulted religious leaders, NGOs and other influential people of the society in all the Covid prevention related activities. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan held meetings with religious leaders, members of NGOs in the preparations made regarding the Omicron variant of the Covid virus. After this meeting, new Covid guidelines have been issued in the state.

Civil society groups and NGOs too have played an important role in implementing the state government’s relief programs for those affected by Covid in different ways. For example, the Rajasthan government had started the ‘ No one should sleep hungry’ campaign during the first and second Covid wave periods. Under this campaign, food items were allocated to needy families, but due to  Covid restrictions many beneficiaries could not reach the ration shops.

To solve this problem, the local NGOs were given the responsibility of delivering food items to the needy. In the campaign, the government distributed dry ration kits among the poor. Apart from the beneficiaries of the National Food Security Scheme, Pakistani Hindu refugees and nomadic communities were also included in this campaign.

In the financial year 2020-21, a total of 984709.418 metric tonnes of wheat was provided to 1,48,27,182 persons on an average per month . At the same time, in the financial year 2021-22, a total of 540686.9 metric tonnes of wheat was distributed to 1,36,99,547 persons on an average per month.

The NGOs played a big role in getting this ration to the right and needy people. Along with this, in August 2020, the state government also started Indira Rasoi Yojana to provide cooked food to the poor. Under this scheme, food is provided for just Rs.8. The state government is spending Rs 100 crore every year on this scheme. Apart from this, NGOs and other organizations worked at their level in providing ration to the people working in their respective areas.

Varun Sharma, Project Director of the Association for Rural Advancement through Voluntary Action and Local Environment (Aravalli), an organization formed by the Government of Rajasthan, talks in detail in this regard. His organization worked together with the Akshaya Patra group to deliver dry ration kits to over 5 thousand families in Jaipur.

According to him, “Since NGOs work with groups in areas that sometimes do not have access to government facilities and resources their reach was more during the Covid period. From vaccination to taking other government schemes to the grassroots, NGOs have done a commendable job. Especially in the first wave of Covid, the work of civil society regarding food security was excellent”.

Shafqat Hussain, a social policy, planning, monitoring and evaluation specialist at UNICEF Rajasthan, also believes that all NGOs and religious organizations have played an important role during the Covid period.

He explains, “ UNICEF Rajasthan in collaboration with the state government did the communication plan, material work related to Covid. More than 200 organizations were connected through various initiatives. Communication material and plans related to Covid were shared simultaneously across Rajasthan on a single platform. At the same time, NGOs worked with government departments like Health, Social Justice and Empowerment, Women and Child Welfare, understanding all the needs related to women and children and trying to solve them”.

Madhav Sharma is a journalist based in Jaipur

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