With the COVID-19 vaccination drive gaining momentum, achieving herd immunity, albeit a herculean task, seems like an optimistic dream today.
By Sanghamitra Singh,
The COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a ceaseless battle until a few months ago, as the impact of the resurgent second wave compounded the social and economic devastation in many countries, notably India. With the COVID-19 vaccination drive gaining momentum, achieving herd immunity, albeit a herculean task, seems like an optimistic dream today. Despite the strides made, vaccinating most of the country’s population continues to be an enormous challenge. A major impediment for the government is not only affordability and accessibility but public trust in COVID-19 vaccines and vaccination, which is as essential as the efficacy of the vaccines themselves.
According to Government of India’s COWIN dashboard, as of September 1st 2021, 16% of India’s population (18 years and above) are fully vaccinated and against 1000 males, 897 females have been vaccinated. In almost every Indian state, men are being inoculated at a rapid pace. Only four states/union territories (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu) have reported more women being vaccinated than men.
The trend of lower COVID-19 vaccination among women is not unique to India. A recent study published in the Lancet shows that women across all age cohorts are less likely to want to be vaccinated than men. This gender gap could have multiple drivers, including specific, unaddressed concerns about side effects among women, gender differences in access to information and services, and trust in the healthcare system or the lack of it.
With misinformation spreading faster than accurate information, courtesy social media platforms and their widespread penetration even in rural areas, people are susceptible to rumours. Vaccine hesitancy not only affects personal decisions but influences perceptions and decisions made by family and friends. Misgivings about the COVID-19 vaccine impacting the menstrual cycle, a likely short-term side effect, have gained significant traction among women. Pregnant women fear that the vaccine will impact foetal development while women in the reproductive age group believe that it may result in infertility. Other challenges that women, especially those from rural areas, face include difficulty in registering online on the COWIN portal, distance to government health centres (where vaccines are available for free) and fear of travelling too far.
Besides the prevalent misinformation, patriarchy, unequal power relationships, lack of agency and restricted social autonomy that place women’s healthcare needs secondary to those of men are largely responsible for the skewed vaccination ratio. Every day, in every nation, women are confronted by discrimination and inequality and healthcare has not been immune to the negative fallout of this gender bias. Socially constructed norms and culturally defined roles, responsibilities of being a woman shape their health outcomes. In India, many women have traditionally received medical attention only when they are pregnant. Addressing the underlying causes of poor health among women will require policies, programs, and efforts to change social norms, thereby empowering women and promoting gender equality.
As the third wave looms large, policymakers must prioritise effective roll-out of gender inclusive, context specific social and behaviour change communication strategies targeting women in their local languages. Such efforts will enable women to breach social barriers which impact their health seeking behaviour and access to quality health services. Women must be encouraged to interact with health providers regarding any reservations they might have on getting vaccinated. Frontline health workers like ASHAs and ANMs can play a major role in reaching out to women in their respective villages to address their concerns, convince them to get vaccinated and facilitate their registration. Formal vaccine grievance redressal platforms which provide information on vaccination as well as address related concerns could be an effective way to ensure women’s voices are heard and factored in. For rural women who live far from government health centers dispensing free vaccines, transportation facilities should be made available. Equipping frontline health workers, female leaders and local female influencers with adequate and accurate knowledge on all aspects of vaccination can be an effective way to promote vaccine confidence among women. A dedicated social media strategy aimed at promoting positive and accurate messaging on COVID-19 vaccination for women must be worked out to combat misinformation on social media platforms.
Women constitute half of India’s population and the battle against COVID-19 cannot be won as long as barriers to vaccine acceptance among this critical group are not acknowledged and adequately addressed. Going forward, focused efforts must be made to ensure that women’s health gets its due priority. As the struggle for a COVID-19 free world continues, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
(The author is Senior Manager, Knowledge Management and Partnerships, Population Foundation of India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)