Traveling 15 km to access a local Primary Healthcare Center is a given for Anushree* and her family who live in Binjamarcha village, Bano, Jharkhand. Something as basic as getting her children the right medication when they are sick has become a daunting task. When asked if she ever had COVID-19, she smiled, Anushree never got tested, so she never really knew. “Didi, ye Sheher ka bimari hai, humey nahi hogo, hum tho sheher nahi jate hai.” (Sister, this is a city illness, it won’t happen to us, we don’t go to the city anyway.”)
This was a sentiment shared by most of the village at the onset of the pandemic. This sentiment didn’t last long. Many of the people that had migrated to bigger cities began returning to the village as the lockdown had been announced and there was no work for them. Soon this ‘city illness’ reached the most vulnerable.
The local ANM (Auxillary Nursing Midwifery) didi would visit the village often to raise awareness and the importance of taking the necessary precautions. But just awareness wasn’t enough, the COVID crisis was plaguing the village like never before. Anushree, her family, and the rest of the residents from the village belong to the SC, ST, OBC minorities, and most tribals have resorted to farming for just 3 months a year to make an income. Even just awareness amidst a humanitarian crisis would be enough.
The village found out about COVID-19 after most cities, and once again in January 2021, they heard about the COVID-19 vaccination later than most. Access to the vaccine was close to none. Why? Because the very thought of traveling 15 km for a vaccine was unthinkable. But more so were the stories the villagers were hearing surrounding the deaths of people they barely knew.
Seema* is the ASHA didi of Binjamarcha village. Accredited Social Health Activist Workers, most commonly known, ASHA workers, are female community health workers trained to function as a bridge between the community and the public health system. Seema supports the local ANM didi and facilitates and enables health care for the villagers. “Mujhe apne gaav ki madat karni hai, sabko swasth aur surakshit dekhna hai, isiliye mein ye karti hu.” (I do this because I want to help my community, I want to be there for them and see all of them healthy). At present, about 90% of the villagers from Binjamarcha are vaccinated, but it wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the vaccine, there was much hesitancy and minimal interest in getting vaccinated. Seema continued to power through and encourage the community to take the vaccine irrespective of the countless abuses hurled at her. So far she has been successful with the exception of a few.
Vaccine hesitancy, especially among the most vulnerable, has been at an all-time high, with many choosing not to take the vaccine. A visit to a local family house in Binjamarcha helped a bit with insight into why parts of rural India are still hesitant to take the vaccine. “I am a farmer, my work is in the fields. My brother took the vaccine and now he can’t do work for more than a few hours, he gets tired easily and is always in pain. I need to earn a living, I can’t do that if I am going to be sick all day. All the villagers have the same reaction.”, Rajesh* explained. Many other villagers too complained about vaccine after effects, claiming that they have less energy than before, and there is constant weakness and body pain even a month after taking the vaccine.
Hesitancy is layered among the vulnerable, and to address something like this, it’s essential that we collaborate with local partners to understand and address the concerns to the best of their abilities. In Jharkhand, the #COVIDActionCollab has been partnering with Partnering Hope Into Action (PHIA) which works with minorities and tribal communities across the state of Jharkhand. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have been supporting these communities with essential livelihood and skill training along with providing them with health facilities.
In 2020, PHIA partnered with the #COVIDActionCollab in the State with the aim to raise support for vulnerable communities #BounceForward, raising awareness around COVID-19 and the vaccine as well as supporting local authorities with vaccination camps, etc. Since they began implementation, they have reached 63,455 individuals from these often forgotten communities.
Continuing to do the work ensures we reach the last mile, with partners like PHIA we are able to reach the communities and support them as they work towards recovery, relief, and eventually resilience.
*names changed to protect the identity