Orda, a tribal village under the Gobara panchayat in Cuttack district, is unplottable on any digital device. Neither Google maps nor any other search engine could tell you where exactly the village is. Last month, when a health department team reached Orda to inoculate the villagers, many fled into the bordering forests to avoid the injections.
Most members of the local community here are now opposed to the mass vaccination drive. They are apprehensive about the government’s medical intervention in an otherwise healthy community.
“We have seen in the past that several healthy people when given injections became sick and some have even died. We do not have any faith in injections when most of us are quite healthy and without any disease,” said Kundia Hembram, a tribal villager from Orda.
“Recently we saw a man from our village that took some injection and died after that. We do not want to invite trouble by taking the injection,” Singha Sundi, another villager told 101Reporters during our visit there.
Spending some time with villagers reveals how unexposed they are to the world outside their hamlet. This, in turn, contributes to the overall lack of trust and increases fear among the locals. The village is still not connected with a proper road and is easily cut-off during monsoons, making travel difficult even on a two-wheeler. The nearest health centre, Gurudijhatia Primary Health Centre, is around 12 km away from the village.
An uphill task
There are several other tribal-dominated areas like Orda that face similar challenges. Here rumours about COVID-19 and its prevention spread faster than authentic information. Pangapada in Tumudibandh Block of Kandhamal district is another such remote tribal village. There is barely any mobile network coverage and the lack of good roads adds to the villagers’ woes.
Surath Patmajhi, who is a youth from the Dongria Kondh tribe in the village, has been vaccinated after being persuaded by some voluntary organisations. But the majority of the population of Pangapada remain elusive. He attributed this to several rumours doing the rounds in the village that are influencing villagers against vaccination. It is important to note that Dongria Kondh is among the thirteen Primarily Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs).
“There are around 30 households in my village but till now not more than 10 persons have taken the vaccine. There are several myths in my community regarding the covid vaccines. They believe that these injections could make them sick; it could be used as a birth control measure and may make them infertile; while some also think that this could be a means to eradicate the tribal communities,” said Surath. He also added that there had been very few attempts by the government to create awareness about the vaccines among the local community.
Meanwhile, a few voluntary organisations are trying to bridge the communication chasm through the mobilisation of local communities. Many of the organisations claim that the remoteness of these villages, the lack of telecom connectivity and the dearth of proper, accessible roads pose insurmountable challenges that prevent conventional media and government outreach programmes from helping these villages.
According to a written statement provided by the Ministry of Communication before Lok Sabha in the last Budget Session (March 2021), Odisha hosts a maximum of 6,099 villages with no mobile connectivity which is around 24 per cent of the unserved villages of India.
“In tribal areas, the local community is more likely to believe their local leaders than the outsiders. There is a huge digital divide. Unlike urban areas or well-connected villages, these villagers are not exposed to the best practices. However, they continue to be under threat as many of them come to weekly haats or markets but many do not follow covid-appropriate behaviour,” said Ruchika Kashyap, Executive Trustee of Atmashakti Trust, which is working in tribal areas of Raygada and Malkangiri to create awareness among the local communities. She also said that the condition of women and differently-abled people are more worrisome in tribal communities as they do not have a voice in the decision-making process of the village.
Y Giri Rao, a tribal livelihood expert from Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar, said that the way the vaccination drive was initially undertaken, rendered the whole exercise futile.
“The tribal communities in the state are very simple and isolated and not exposed to the ideas and experiments on the covid front. They hardly see people with PPE kits, masks, gloves and other protective gear except in hospitals. The visits of health teams wearing such attire, without taking the local people in confidence first, led to opposition and reluctance among the community and affected the vaccination drive,” he told 101Reporters.
Vaccination in tribal areas across the state ran into several operational hiccups due to the shortage of vaccines and the indiscriminate and innumerable closure of drives in several districts. Tribal areas remained the worst-affected as the closures were compounded by vaccine hesitancy and opposition from the community. Moreover, these areas had the least teledensity, smartphone penetration and lack of literacy making it harder for communities to register the fast-dwindling slots online.
Experts also claimed that in several tribal villages, different members of the households often visit forests to collect minor forest produce or for farming, and unscheduled visits by health teams in such areas failed to evoke a good response. Some also suggested creative means of communication like skits and folk arts to win the trust of the communities and spread the message.
Gautam Mohanty, Programme Officer at Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihood Programme (OTELP), which was the nodal agency responsible for vaccinating PVTGs, said that at least 20,346 members of the PVTGs above the age of 45 years have been vaccinated till now and a total of 2,342 persons in the 18-44 age group have also been vaccinated. Mohanty said that although OTELP and the health department faced several challenges, it has worked on special plans to counter them.
“The situation was challenging initially, where we saw many people fleeing to forest areas in tribal villages to avoid vaccination but this has changed and we are proving successful now. We started taking the local leaders and volunteers from such areas into confidence and used them to create awareness in their own language and local beliefs.”
Mohanty also said that village-to-village awareness campaigns with microphones, incentives to visit quarantine centres, special covid-kits for the villagers, etc. helped them to garner their support and that the situation is likely to improve soon.
(The author is a Bhubaneswar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)