Development, Health | South Asia

25 October 2021

As the pandemic’s second wave eases in India, governments have been able to focus on accelerating a vaccination rollout, administering millions of doses a day, Kaveri Mishra writes.

Over the course of 2021, India has been on a mission to vaccinate its massive population against COVID-19. The central government set the ambitious goal of inoculating the entire eligible population by the end of 2021, and is progressing steadily.

This month, the country’s first-dose vaccination rate passed 50 per cent, with millions of shots being administered per day.

The country’s first shots were administered on 16 January 2021, marking the beginning of one of the world’s largest vaccination drives. As in other countries, the rollout was divided into phases, with the first phase of vaccination covering front-line health care workers and the very vulnerable, before moving onto senior citizens and eventually to younger Indians.

Three vaccines were granted approval. Covian, made by Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech, Covishield, made by the Serum Institute of India under licence from AstraZeneca, and the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Since the rollout began, nearly one billion doses have been administered in the country.

This pace is bringing India closer to achieving the goal of vaccinating the country’s entire eligible population but, as has been the case in many other places, India’s governments have faced challenges along the way.

For one, India’s second wave of COVID-19 in May 2021 had a serious impact on India’s health infrastructure just as the rollout gained momentum. The battered health sector faced a lack of hospital beds, as well as a huge shortage of oxygen and medication. This period saw India’s cases and deaths reported rise to highest in the world, though it has since fallen behind the United States in cases and Brazil in deaths.

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These shortages, especially of oxygen cylinders, oximeters, and lifesaving drugs saw hoarding, sky-rocketing prices, and other inhumane behaviour, and this crisis slowed the country’s efforts to get its vaccine rollout off the ground.

This isn’t the only reason the vaccination drive has not been a smooth affair for Indian health officials.

As it has elsewhere, controversy has engulfed the idea of vaccination itself in India. Myths about vaccine side-effects ranging from impotency and infertility have proliferated, and religious objections to the testing and manufacturing process have also led to vaccine hesitancy in some communities.

Still, there is reason for optimism, and the vaccination drive has shown some positive signs for India’s future.

Himachal Pradesh recently reached its target of 100 per cent first dose vaccination – a promising and marvellous achievement, especially given the region’s mountainous terrain made it a herculean task for health workers to reach some of its most remote villages, which are tucked away in narrow mountain passes. That the state could pass this logistical test may bode well for other Indian states seeking to overcome similar challenges.

Larger states like Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Gujarat have also been able to accelerate vaccination drives as the second wave waned. Uttar Pradesh, a large state with a diverse population, crossed 120 million doses administered in mid-October, achieving first dose vaccination coverage of 63 per cent.

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As part of this, businesses were involved directly in the vaccination drive for the first time. From information technology companies to the education sector, vaccination booths were set up in workplaces so that staff could be vaccinated, free of charge.

As has been the case in other countries, hospitals and private clinics encouraged those who had taken the vaccine to share their experience on social media, which went alongside government promotional and awareness campaigns.

With online registration often a part of the vaccination process, those in rural areas with low literacy rates and poor digital literacy were especially vulnerable to misinformation or confusion about the vaccine.

To help with this, health workers even went door-to-door, risking infection, to create awareness, encourage people to get vaccinated, and answer questions about the rumours surrounding the vaccination and its side effects. Women played a vital role in both leading and participating in these initiatives.

A crucial part of this is that the second wave has eased in India, with new COVID-19 cases falling drastically, easing pressure on the health sector. Unfortunately, some experts predict a third wave is likely to hit India soon, but if the country’s governments and health sector can continue their vital work, the damage of the virus could be reduced considerably by their efforts.

Ultimately, even if India doesn’t reach the fullness of its goals by a third wave, many millions of Indians are now already at far less risk of dying due to COVID-19 than they were at the start of this year. Together with sensible government pandemic guidelines and community fidelity to them, vaccinations will ensure that India’s third wave, if and when it arrives, isn’t a repeat of its deadly predecessor.

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