With less than 5 per cent of India’s adult population of about 1 billion having been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, health authorities face multiple challenges to meet their target of full vaccination by the end of the year.
As well as vaccine shortages the country’s inoculatation programme has been hampered by the large number of poor and illiterate people without digital skills in rural areas, where more than 65 per cent of India’s population of over 1.3 billion lives.
In an affidavit to the supreme court last week, India’s federal government, which is responsible for all vaccine supplies, drastically reduced its estimate of the number of doses that would be available by the end of December. It now expects to have access to 1.35 billion doses, 810 million less than expected.
So far four vaccines have been cleared for domestic use – the licence-produced AstraZeneca known locally as Covishield; the indigenously developed Covaxin; Russia’s Sputnik V; and Moderna – with the last two becoming available in a few weeks’ time.
On June 7th, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi declared that his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government would procure 75 per cent of all vaccines and provide them free to 28 states and eight federally administered territories, while the remaining 25 per cent would be sold to the private sector.
But there have been many instances across the country where vaccination centres cancelled inoculations at the last minute as they ran short of vaccines.
Vaccination registration is also proving problematic as it requires an active mobile number with SMS capability, an internet connection and a government identity, which millions of low-income, rural poor and disadvantaged communities do not possess.
Additionally, vaccine hesitancy, especially among women in small towns and villages, is also proving detrimental to the vaccination drive.
Healthcare workers said women feared the vaccine would either kill them or render them sterile. Many deaths in villages and small towns have also been attributed to the vaccine even if the person died of something unrelated.
Vaccination hesitancy is also rampant among India’s low-caste Dalits, numbering about 200 million, due to prejudice and bias in the discriminatory Hindu caste hierarchy.
“The vaccination programme has become a class and caste thing,” health worker Kiran Devi told the BBC last week, adding that although state governments had launched initiatives to debunk these vaccine fears they were having limited success.
Meanwhile, India’s daily average of virus cases dropped to 39,796 over the past 24 hours from a high of 400,000 in May, with the decrease attributed to strict lockdowns imposed for several weeks in numerous states, restrictions which were recently relaxed.
However, doctors continue to warn against an imminent third wave of infections.