That India's COVID-19 vaccination programme is being plagued by high ‘vaccine hesitancy’ is hardly any surprise. Indications of this response were evident for the past several months, on basis of anecdotal evidence, as well as survey results. Yet, the government did precious little to combat declining enthusiasm for the vaccine which was very high during the initial period of research and development of the antidote, and seen as the only panacea for the novel coronavirus.
There are reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would personally, through his addresses, make an effort to stem the tide against its most ambitious vaccine programme in recent years. But, this is unlikely to bolster the campaign as he chose not to make use of the opportunity that the pandemic provided, to make citizens and society shed rampant superstition and embrace the spirit of scientific enquiry.
Reasons behind the tentativeness in the health care and front-line workers, who have been prioritised in the programme, lie embedded in the low value of scientific temper in society, as well as the failure of the government in securing ‘confidence’ of the target group. This is one of the 3Cs essential to overcome “vaccine hesitancy” in society according to the World Health Organisation – countering complacency, securing confidence and ensuring convenience.
Survey data reported in December 2020, when the COVID-19 vaccine appeared imminent, revealed that a startling number of Indians – 59% – were disinclined to rush to take shots. Forty one per cent of the people surveyed said that they would wait for at least three months to a year before getting themselves vaccinated. Another seven per cent said that they would not opt for the vaccine before 2022. There are two primary reasons behind this unwillingness to rush to be vaccinated at the first opportunity.
The first reason is the failure of the government to secure people's trust in the scientific process that preceded the clearance to the two available vaccines. Among the two, faith in Bharat Biotech's Covaxin’s ability to act as a deterrent to the virus is lower than the Serum Institute of India's Covidshield. But this relatively higher confidence in the latter does not reflect on the quality of the vaccine so much, as on the failure of the government to take adequate confidence-building measures by making full disclosure of efficacy and trials data to the public.
It is a well known fact that mass campaigns, which do not have the element of coercion as the sterilisation programme had during Emergency, and instead depend on voluntary choice, succeed only the government is completely transparent about processes used and test results before granting clearance. Instead of putting out the reasons for granting Emergency Use Authorisation (and emergency use authorisation in ‘clinical trial mode’ for Covaxin) in the public domain, the government chose not to answer numerous questions that the media had. In fact the entire process was overbearing and autocratic in nature.
As a result, vaccine hesitancy, which has a long past in India, has merely become more entrenched, insofar as COVID-19 is concerned. There is grave danger of India missing the opportunity to further retard the spread of the disease. The worry is that the vaccination programme has been rolled out at a time when the numbers of fresh cases are declining by the day. Coupled with the scepticism on the efficacy of the two vaccines, we are faced with a situation where complacency among people may increase overnight because of the dip in numbers. For several weeks, compliance of basic safeguards like masks and maintaining a basic level of personal hygiene has shown a marked decline, especially in non-metropolitan India.
But the government's disregard for transparency and diligence is merely one side of the coin. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated on several occasions that challenges are also great opportunities. But, like on several other issues, this statement too remained mere rhetoric. One would have expected at the outbreak of a pandemic would also have provided a great opportunity to significantly raise the bar of scientific temper in society.
Hopes for this were bolstered by the fact that the Department of Science and Technology, in September 2019, had prepared a new draft policy on “scientific social responsibility” with the objective of developing linkages between science and society. The aim was “infusing scientific temperament into day-to-day social existence and interaction.” Scientific temperament was described as: “An approach to human and social existence that rejects dogma or assertion that contradicts empirical evidence or lacks a scientific basis, that habitually questions everything, that privileges logic and rationality, and is consistently self-critical.”
In November 2019, Modi had taken a leaf out of Jawaharlal Nehru's playbook and fêted the virtues of ‘scientific temper’ in society. While inaugurating the fifth edition of the India International Science Festival in Kolkata, Modi had said that a “society in which scientific temper gains strength, develops faster. Scientific temper eliminates blind belief and reduces superstition.”
Yet, when the opportunity rose in front of Modi, he did little to belie unscientific beliefs and superstitions in the country. Even before the prime minister announced the countrywide lockdown, reports surfaced pointing to a wave of irrational activities being promoted by several obscurantist organisations. These included the gau mutra (cow urine) party organised by the Hindu Mahasabha.
The Hindu Mahasabha president, Chakrapani Maharaj, while announcing setting up of gau mutra counters and incense sticks made of cow dung at the event to drive away the coronavirus, also claimed that the virus would not affect vegetarians. He had asked public figures eating meat to apologise to the virus. Although he was aware of this, neither Modi, nor any other party leader of significance criticised such programmes, because this would have been contrary to his politics.
In March 2020, Modi called for a ‘Janata Curfew’ that concluded, at his call, with much thali beating and clanging of bells. But thousands of 'curfewed' Indians disregarded that the call was given to express gratitude to health workers and instead took to the streets in mistaken belief that these amplified and resonating reverberations would “boost blood cicculation in the human body" and this would "render the virus ineffective.” A minister even popularised the chant of ‘Go Corona, Corona Go’ and even now believes it was a wise step. Modi did nothing to chastise people and his political supporters who had promoted the bizarre spectacle.
If this was not enough, the ignominy was reserved for the prime minister and he claimed this ‘honour’ with the play on the number nine by asking people to light a candle / earthen lamp / torch or the flashlight on their mobile phones to mark the country’s fight against COVID-19 on April 5. All kinds of fake news spread courtesy the country’s robust ICT penetration amid people's digital illiteracy. People actual believed that the ‘etheral aura’ on April 5 would kill the virus. Modi's address at 9 am calling for the observance at 9 pm for 9 pm conjured every conceivable ‘belief’ from numerology to astrology and even astronomy. With sycophancy growing in the country, even the former chief of the Indian Medical Association took to social media to “explain the science” behind the Prime Minister’s announcement “based on Yoga Vasistha, Chapter 6, the principle of collective consciousness....”
Although Modi's calls were ostensibly for building public awareness, discipline and an appreciation for COVID-19 warriors, these programme degenerated into superstitions, irrational claims and conspiracy theories over hundreds of social media platforms. Likewise, while the vaccine programme is necessary, in the short term as well as the long term, to manage the health crisis, it was driven by the politics of chest-thumping nationalism.
The present regime is not only led by a leader who discounts science (recall his assertions on mastery of in vitro-fertilisation and plastic surgery in ancient India), but the ruling party’s politics is based greatly on unscientific assumptions. As a result, no effort was made over the past ten months to counter the prevailing vaccine hesitancy now sweeping last parts of India.
Author and journalist, Mukhopadhyay's books include Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. The views are personal.