One of the largest COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in the world is ongoing in India and over 16 crore doses of the vaccine have been administered as of 6th May. Vaccines offer the best exit strategy from the pandemic. However, despite the availability of data regarding the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, public scepticism and lack of knowledge about vaccines persist across the country. This is especially exacerbated in rural and tribal India where technology penetration is low and government messaging on vaccination or Covid Appropriate Behaviour (CAB) is limited.
It is, therefore, essential that along with the vaccine rollout, an effective communication and awareness strategy is undertaken in rural India to help disseminate timely, accurate and transparent information about vaccination. This will fight vaccine hesitancy, alleviate apprehensions, ensure its acceptance and encourage more citizens to get vaccinated. Such a strategy needs to take a decentralised approach of reaching out to villages, given the challenges of technology and difficult to access areas, geographically.
It is critical to sensitise communities on the need for mass vaccination, dispel myths around the COVID-19 vaccine and allay fears, as well as to facilitate registration of eligible populations for vaccination. For this, an approach on improving knowledge, attitude and practice is required.
Knowledge on vaccination: In rural parts, it is important to first make communities aware about what vaccination is and its purpose. The lack of such rudimentary information makes people vulnerable to rumours and misinformation. For this, the messages have to be in the local language and need to be contextualised as per the socio-cultural background of communities. It also needs to address state-specific variations and vulnerabilities such as rural, tribal, nontribal, and hard to reach pockets.
Attitude: Correct knowledge leads to proper attitude towards vaccination. This is where people are able to critically assess misinformation being passed on and confront rumours.
Practice: Improved knowledge and attitude fuel action on the part of community members. In this case, it means registering for vaccination and ensuring completion of both the doses in timely manner.
One of the biggest challenges of rolling out the vaccination is rural parts is the limited access to technology and even further limited knowledge among the communities in using technology. Questions like “what is CO-WIN dashboard?”, “how do I register?”, “how do I book my appointment?”, “where is my nearest vaccination centre?”, etc. are rampant. This puts rural communities at a much bigger disadvantage compared to urban communities, where technology usage is high and conventional medial messages are concentrated. It is vital to bridge this gap by facilitating registrations for community members. This can be done by setting up registration kiosks at the village level and using key influencers such as Gram Panchayat members, Anganwadi sevikas, ASHA workers, etc. to mobilise people to get themselves registered. This will be a key strategy till walk in vaccination registrations are allowed by the government for all age categories. Taking vaccination to rural India is complex. However, it can be achieved with decentralised planning and a community based approach. It is important to educate people that adoption of CAB and vaccination is the sure shot and only way towards normalcy.
By: Anil Parmar, Director, Community Investment, NGO Partner - United Way Mumbai