In January 2021, India began the largest vaccination drive for more than 138 crore citizens with a lot of misinformation and myths in the population. Initially, while battling the second wave, the vaccination drive progressed at a dismal rate, but when the government shifted its vaccination approach to the entire adult population, the vaccination drive started picking up. By 20 December 2021, official figures report that more than 1.37 billion vaccination doses have been administered in the country. While the inoculation of citizens is driven by the government, non-profit organizations are bridging the gaps by working with local administrations and grassroots to make vaccination drive acceptable and accessible for rural India, which is home to more than half of India’s population.
Meet Jayshri Jayram Gaikwad is a 65-year-old senior resident of Kumbarshet – an uphill village in Sudhagad, Raigad. Taking support of her grandson and son, she managed to walk to the government school premises, where the COVID-19 vaccination camp was taking place. She took her first jab and thanked the medical team and Swades Foundation’s team. Suffering from severe joint pains and the remote village having limited travel facilities, Jaishri Gaikwad would have difficulty traveling to the nearest medical center located 4 km from her village. She shares, “I cannot walk without support. Taking a bus from our village and visiting the dispensary near our village is a full day task. Had the camp not been organized in our village by the government authorities and Swades Foundation, I cannot imagine getting vaccinated. Or it would have been a big task for me to reach the dispensary.”
Like Jayshri many other rural women and men from remotest villages in Raigad, Maharashtra were able to take their vaccination for COVID-19 through Vaccination on Wheels organized by district authorities supported by the Swades Foundation. The philanthropic initiative of Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala has been active in geography for more than 20 years and driven by their mission for empowering rural lives they have impacted more than half a million community members. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Swades Foundation has been working hand in hand with the district administration in controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Till 20 December, more than 31,000 vaccinations have been supported under the Vaccination on Wheels initiative in the remotest parts of Raigad district in Maharashtra. The district administration of Raigad and Swades Foundation took a systematic approach for this successful vaccination drive.
Understanding and addressing Vaccine Hesitancy
In early 2021, while the nationwide vaccination drive was initiated, the air was filled with a lot of misinformation. This added to the fear and apprehensions in the minds of the rural population especially, the tribal population. Swades Foundation with district administration first conducted a survey in June 2021 covering 570 community members above 45 years of age from remotest villages, to understand their apprehensions and fears. Over 45% of tribal community members reported that they feared the side effects of vaccination. The survey showed 74% of community members were unwilling to vaccinate. The Swades Foundation then addressed these fears by conducting virtual sessions with experts. The Swades Foundation’s 1300+ Village Development Committees (VDC) – a group of empowered community members volunteering to plan and execute development plans for their village and Swades Mitra’s – Village Health Volunteers played an instrumental role in mobilizing the community members for vaccination.
With a core belief in community participation, the Swades Foundation also roped in key opinion leaders and stakeholders to ensure that vaccination camps receive maximum participation from the community for this. The Sarpanch of Dapoli village in Raigad understood the challenges of rural community members in Raigad during the second wave. To avoid a similar situation in his village, he understood that vaccination was the only weapon. Thus, he joined the ASHA worker in mobilizing the community members for vaccination and conducted community group discussions and also went door to door to motivate community members for vaccination.
Mobile Vaccination Drives
Since the vaccination centers are far from the village, visiting vaccination centers can be a full-day task for community members from remote villages. For many villagers surviving on daily wages, skipping a day of work means no food for the family for that day. Similarly understanding the concerns of elderly and specially abled citizens, traveling to vaccination centers far from their village is a huge challenge. Understanding this, The Swades Foundation supported the district administration with three mobile vans that would take the government health team to the remotest villages and ensure the successful vaccination of community members. This partnership equipped the district health department with mobility support to reach hard-to-travel villages and also enable onsite vaccinations camps for labor forces on farms, commercial and project sites.
Bottom-up meticulous planning led to the successful vaccination of remote community members. The village ASHA workers and Swades Mitra’s prepared a list of eligible candidates and shared it with the nearest health center. Ensuring optimum utilization of resources and vaccines, the health teams deployed the mobile vaccination vans for the villages and ensured successful vaccination camps. Sharmila Prabhakar Utekar, the Swades Mitra for Turbhe Khurd village in Poladpur shares, “Early in the year, the vaccines were available at the Primary Health Centre. But, the community members were reluctant to visit as there are limited modes of transport from our village. It is difficult for senior citizens to travel. Therefore the vaccination was not picking up. But, when the Vaccination on Wheels initiative was launched, people were able to take vaccination at their doorstep. They did not have to leave their work or travel far for vaccinations. I informed the community members and prepared the list of eligible candidates for the vaccination. This is how we ensured the complete vaccination of over 100 community members in our village. “
Another inspiring story is from Kudgaon village in Raigad. The women led VDC members of the village, first took the vaccination themselves and then convinced hesitant villagers for vaccination. Rajashree Dombale sharing her experience said “Initially, villagers were hesitant to get vaccination. Everyone was afraid of the side effects it can cause. This is when we decided that first we will take our first dose and then convince the villagers to take vaccination. We told them that we are healthy and had no side effects from the vaccination. This motivated a lot of villagers and they were ready to get vaccinated.”
Community participation and ownership
As the district administration was also responding to the second wave, the health infrastructure and workers were overwhelmed. Swades Foundation’s Village Development committee took lead and mobilized community members, reached out to medical centers for vaccination, and ensured logistic support. In Barasgaon village, the turnout for vaccination was low. Ten empowered women from the village mobilized the villagers by conducting home visits, understood their hesitations for vaccinations and supported them with necessary information through experts and experiences of vaccinated community members. They also convinced the medical staff to schedule the camp again and these women organized and managed it. Approx 409 community members got vaccinated in the village.
The Foundation has now expanded to Nashik and is supporting the Vaccination on Wheels initiative there too. Since the first lockdown, Swades has supported urgent relief and recovery measures. This includes supporting 17,000 grocery kits for tribal families in Raigad and over 3.6 lac meals for migrants, homeless and daily wage earners in Mumbai. The Foundation has also supported essential medical equipment aid to government health facilities worth INR 15 crore including 14 ambulances, 179 jumbo oxygen cylinders, 16 ventilators, 144 Oxygen concentrators, etc.