Lockdown. Quarantine. Self-isolation. Pandemic. Words that were almost unknown until 2019 have suddenly become common parlance in 2020. Hand hygiene, air purifying, and social distancing have become daily norms on par with home-made concoctions and vaporizers. ‘Giloy Tulasi’ (Moonseed, Basil) hit the market shelves along with masks, gloves, shields, and sprays. 2020 shall go down world history as a year of unprecedented panic.
The panic that pushed humans indoors. The panic brought the economy down to its knees. The panic that strengthened international borders. The panic that cleared the skies of air traffic. One virus gave a befitting answer to unquestioned human aggression. One virus raised many questions regarding the future of human existence.
On the last day of 2019, China reported to the World Health Organisation about the presence of a deadly viral infection in Wuhan. Within less than two months the virus crossed international borders and by March 11, 2020, got recognized as a global pandemic. Lockdowns became a new normal across the globe. India too locked its doors on March 22.
The nationwide lockdown, punctuated by empty streets and panic became the new normal in 2020.
Since the first reported case in Wuhan, 96.2 million cases have been reported worldwide claiming 2.06 million lives. 27th January would mark one year since India reported its first case. In this one year, 10.6 million Indians got infected with COVID-19 while 1.5 lakh of the infected lost their lives. COVID-19’s horrific tales created panic across the country. If there is one prayer that Indian Gods might have heard from their locked down temples in this one year, then it is for the speedy arrival of a vaccine against this deadly virus.
As it is not uncommon in India, religious rituals have been organized for the success of science. Medicine of any sort is welcomed with open arms. A vaccine against COVID-19 has been looked up to as the only ray of hope in times of such deadly darkness. Scientific experiments began at a war footing. Primary medicine to COVID-19 arrived within three months of the imposition of lockdown. However, soaring infection rates still called for an earlier arrival of a vaccine to put a full-stop to this entire menace. India competed with global institutions to bring out a vaccine as soon as possible and thanks to its relentless efforts, a vaccine did arrive with the first rays of 2021.
On January 2, 2021, the Drug Controller General of India approved two vaccines viz., Covishield and Covaxin for restricted emergency use in the country. Covishield is the AstraZeneca-Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. Covaxin is a government-backed vaccine manufactured by Bharat Biotech, an Indian biotechnology institution.
Speculations about approval to Covaxin immediately arose among scientific communities as Covaxin has not completed its phase III trials. Putting aside such speculations as mere cliché, the Indian government began the first phase of COVID-19 vaccine rollout across the country on 16 January 2021.
The vaccination drive is reported to be the biggest COVID-19 vaccination drive in the world. India aimed at vaccinating about 3 lakh people per day thus setting a target to vaccinate 3 crore health workers and frontline workers in its first phase of vaccination. A digital platform, Co-WIN has been launched to provide real-time information on the inoculation drive. The COVID-19 vaccination drive is hailed by international organizations. India also signed up contracts to export its indigenous vaccines. When the wait for the vaccine is finally over and all seems to be going well, a new word entered the media parlance i.e. vaccine hesitancy.
Day 1 of COVID-19 vaccination in India saw only 1.9 lakh of the estimated 3 lakh health workers and frontline workers volunteering for inoculation. Lack of complete trust in the vaccine is cited to be one of the major reasons behind people not turning up for vaccination. Covaxin’s consent form (Bharat Biotech is asked to take consent form from its beneficiaries as Covaxin has not completed phase III human trials) is also reported to be scaring away the beneficiaries from coming forward to get a jab.
Vaccine hesitancy caused by the pushing through of the indigenous vaccine has led to a slow start to the vaccination drive.
Already weakening infection spread in the country is also said to be one of the reasons behind people staying away from vaccination. The ‘wait and watch’ approach maintained by many people regarding vaccination shows that the early enthusiasm towards the immediate rollout of a vaccine has subdued to a great extent.
Diverse opinions are being heard in scientific and medical communities regarding vaccine hesitancy. One side of the argument says India is in no hurry to roll out a vaccine for emergency use in the case of COVID-19 as the disease’s mortality rate is comparatively lower than many other diseases and the infection rate is also on the downfall in India.
A counter-argument runs against vaccine hesitancy as a negligent act that might cause a huge loss to the country. Scientists in favor of vaccination advise getting inoculated when the strain is weak and the spread rate is slow. They warn that if an Indian variant of the virus or a second wave of the infection hits the country, then the losses will be higher than the previous wave.
To add fuel to the vaccine hesitancy rampant in the air, as many as nine deaths and sixteen hospitalizations were recorded in the first ten days of the vaccination drive. No deaths were confirmed to be linked to the vaccine but the mere speculation that the deaths might be due to adverse effects of the vaccine itself is enough to scare people away from vaccination. In this wake, it cannot be ruled out that the government might have done better if it had waited for the completion of phase III trials before giving a nod to the vaccine rollout.
Vaccination numbers are steadily increasing in the country but are still not meeting the set target by the government. The government is doing its best to promote indigenous vaccines as India’s pride and is continuously campaigning to instill trust in the vaccine through its tele-ads. Better trust in the vaccine might be attained if public representatives themselves volunteer for vaccination in the next phase.
Either by promoting trust in the vaccine through scientific results or by rolling back the vaccination drive, the government should take a step to answer the vaccine hesitancy. It can begin with investigating the deaths of health workers related to vaccination drive as its first step towards fighting vaccine hesitancy.