Whatever it takes: On govt. powers to combat vaccine hesitancy

The government must do all within its powers to combat vaccine hesitancy

Faith in entities is often an act of personal commitment not amenable to falsification, but trust in a scientific process can be established with confidence-building measures and full disclosure of all relevant data. Any mass campaign that involves voluntary effort on the part of the public can succeed only when transparency and open communication channels are the tools of choice.

If the poor rate of uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine in most of the States in the country is any indication, the government has not taken the people of the country along, in what is a purely voluntary exercise, but one vested with great power to retard the pace of the epidemic. For instance, Tamil Nadu, a State perceived to be largely health literate, and relatively well-equipped with health infrastructure, achieved only over 16% of its targeted coverage on the launch day.

On the second day of vaccination, the compliance further dropped; in some States, vaccination was suspended. A marked favouring of the Covishield vaccine over Covaxin was also noticed in multiple States.

But none of this is a surprise. The signs, verily, were out there for everyone to see, for a long time indeed. Studies measured high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the general population, and among health-care workers, the first in the line list of people to receive free vaccination. Clearly, vaccine hesitancy was not addressed sufficiently, or not taken seriously enough.

With the sequence of events that followed the clearance of Emergency Use Authorisation (in Covaxin, it is emergency use authorisation in ‘clinical trial mode’) — a high-handed announcement with little attempt to put out compelling evidence in the public domain, or answer multiple queries in press conferences — vaccine hesitancy merely dug its heels in deeper.

The inability of the government and agencies involved to amicably resolve controversies surrounding the clearance for Covaxin, even before it was able to produce interim data on efficacy from phase-3 trials, has had a direct consequence, as witnessed by poor numbers in its uptake so far. A vaccine, unequivocally, is public good, but the lack of transparency surrounding the roll-out of the COVID vaccines has done little to enhance trust in this experiential principle. This uncommon haste in trying to lunge towards the tape while still some distance from the finish line might have been justified if the state had taken the people along.

Vaccinating the nation, however, is less a race than a slow and steady process. Building confidence in the process is crucial to achieving the task at hand. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, is very relevant here. And the Health Ministry must do whatever it takes to make a success of the vaccination drive.

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