The hard reality for India is that data from the Covid Symptom Survey, conducted by Facebook and the University of Maryland earlier this year, shows relatively high levels of vaccine hesitancy.
While the talk on challenges for Covid-19 vaccination in India has largely focused on supply problems—from quantum to distribution issues—there is a real challenge of vaccine hesitancy that the health authorities quickly need to address. At present, just 25% of the population has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccines approved in the country. However, the coverage is lower than the national average in even a Tamil Nadu and a Punjab, let alone the usual suspects like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Given administration challenges would likely not be a big problem in rich states—these are also typically the ones that have seen higher private-sector participation in the vaccine drive compared to the less economically-strong ones—there could be awareness challenges at play. States must adopt the right strategies to make people aware in the long-term, but the urgency in terms of expanding vaccine cover to prevent another ugly wave can’t be underscored enough.
Against this backdrop, many countries and smaller jurisdictions are adopting total or quasi-vaccine-mandates, or making vaccination compulsory for certain aspects of normal living, and there has been a demonstrable benefit. Vaccines mandates have stoked controversy and fierce debate, but they have proved effective (though it can be argued that exemption criteria will have to be created). Hospitals in the US and elsewhere that adopted vaccine-mandates early saw uptake rise sharply among their employees; a similar phenomenon has been reported in many educational institutions abroad that required students to get vaccinated with widely-approved Covid vaccines.
A recent survey reported that, once restrictions on the unvaccinated came into play, many vaccine-sceptic households expressed willingness to receive the vaccine despite continued scepticism. France is even mulling over asking for proof of vaccination or a very recent negative test to allow people to dine at a restaurant or watch a movie at a theatre or participate in activities that are primed for contagion. Vaccine-passports are also becoming the norm, with jurisdictions coming out with their lists of approved vaccines for travellers.
The hard reality for India is that data from the Covid Symptom Survey, conducted by Facebook and the University of Maryland earlier this year, shows relatively high levels of vaccine hesitancy. Note that respondents from Tamil Nadu and Punjab registered the highest levels of hesitancy, and the lowest proportions of population that could be considered aware about Covid vaccines. States have dropped the ball on clearing the air on misconceptions about risk, side-effects, efficacy, etc, that, in no small measure, are fuelled by the vaccine nationalism.
While a targeted drive to make people aware will have a rich dividend in terms of long-term vaccine-adoption, there is also the need to act fast on expanding vaccine cover. The recent ICMR serosurvey talks of 70% population-level seropositivity, and the delta variant seems to outsmart vaccines by a considerable degree. But, the fact is that vaccines are still the planet’s best bet against the pandemic, and the government needs to consider a referendum on a vaccine mandate, if not outright order this.