Residents of Umbarthan village of Surgana district in Maharashtra ran away when health workers knocked on their doors for the COVID-19 vaccination drives organised by the State Government.
Like many others, the village residents showed extreme vaccine hesitancy fearing death and other misconceptions. But when a Zilla Parishad (ZP) school teacher, Ratan Chaudhari, visited his native for the first time since the countrywide vaccination drive began, he learned that hardly any person in the village had taken the vaccine.
“It was May and almost five months since the vaccination drive began in the country. But villagers ran over the hills or hid from the officials when the government vehicles did rounds announcing the exercise,” he says, adding that he learned that misinformation led to the scare.
Ratan tells The Better India that the villagers feared the vaccination would cause death or infertility. There were also a lot of conspiracy theories floating around. “The villagers believed that the government promoted digital India, and since they were uneducated, they believed the government aimed to do away with their section of society or reduce their population owing to the lack of literacy in tribal belts,” he says.
Moreover, the deaths in the neighbouring states fuelled their misconceptions. “Our village is located at the Gujarat border, and some instances [of death] became known from a village about 11 km away. A few people died as the vaccines spoiled after being transported in the long journey and after the authorities failed to maintain the required temperatures. Some suffered illnesses and developed complications. The Mucormycosis news also started surfacing on social media, which worsened their fears,” says the 48-year-old.
Adding to their woes, the villagers speak Dangi and Konkani. “The announcements and leaflets were in Marathi, which did not help to clear any doubts among the residents,” he says.
To overcome the fear among the community, Ratan decided to take matters into his own hands and helped vaccinate about 10,000 people across 10 villages in his taluka.
Dispelling Vaccine Fears
The primary ZP school teacher started from his home, where his father Shivram was refusing to take the vaccine. “He feared death due to vaccination but I informed him that I was fully vaccinated. A couple of days later, he felt convinced and took his first jab,” he says.
Ratan then shared the example of his father to dispel fears among villagers. He started reaching out to people at weddings, funerals, a village chowk, bus stop, temples and farms. “I did not lose out on any opportunity and took permission from organisers and priests in public events to talk about the importance of the vaccination,” he explains.
He says that he bought masks and handed them out to people in an attempt to start a conversation. “On other occasions, I approached students about their studies, while I inquired about health with the elderly to begin a dialogue about taking the vaccine. Many became furious and often tried to shoo me away, but I worked to calm them and shared examples of people who saved their lives despite infections only because they were vaccinated,” he says.
Ratan also translated the leaflets from Marathi to the local languages and shared the messages on WhatsApp and other social media among the community. Slowly, villagers felt convinced and started taking the vaccine.
Ratan went beyond his village and travelled dusty and rough roads to reach nine neighbouring hamlets. “In April, around 2,500 people were vaccinated, mainly from government departments and the police. The number of vaccinated people has now jumped to 13,156 on 22 June,” he says.
Babulal Sahare says he took the first dose of the vaccine after being convinced by Ratan. “I was scared after reading the misinformation and fake messages on social media but Ratan helped me clear all my doubts. I did not face any illness after the vaccination and shared my experience with others to motivate them too,” he says.
Dr Dilip Ranveer, taluka health officer, says, “Ratan has certainly helped remove fears and misinformation among villagers. His work is commendable and other officials also took inspiration from him to increase the vaccination numbers.”
But Ratan says that his job remains unfinished until all 1.78 lakh villagers in the taluka are vaccinated. “I have decided to ensure that all the residents in the taluka take the dose and become safe. My work will continue until then to stop misinformation, dispel fears and safeguard the community,” he adds.
Edited by Yoshita Rao