India kicked off one of the world’s largest coronavirus vaccination drives yesterday as the pandemic spread at a record pace and global Covid-19 deaths surged past 2mn. India, home to 1.3bn people, has the world’s second-largest caseload. The government has given approvals to two vaccines - though one is yet to complete clinical trials - aiming to inoculate around 300mn people by July.
One of the first to receive a jab in the eastern city of Kolkata was 35-year-old health worker Santa Roy, who told AFP he now saw a “ray of hope” after witnessing people die of the coronavirus. Authorities say they are drawing on their experience with elections and child immunisation programmes for the drive, which is a daunting task in an enormous, impoverished nation with often shoddy transport infrastructure and one of the world’s worst-funded healthcare systems.
Regular child inoculations are a “much smaller game” and vaccinating against Covid-19 will be “deeply challenging”, said Satyajit Rath from India’s National Institute of Immunology. The government has readied tens of thousands of refrigeration tools and about 150,000 specially trained staff to try and overcome some of those challenges. The vaccines will also have high security, so that doses do not end up being sold on India’s large black market for medicines.
Some of the hospitals were decked out with flowers. On day one around 300,000 people were due to be vaccinated with Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca and made by India’s Serum Institute, or the homegrown Covaxin.
Covaxin is still in clinical trials and recipients on Saturday had to sign a consent form that stated that the “clinical efficacy... is yet to be established”.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he launched the vaccination programme urged people to reject “propaganda and rumours” about the indigenous vaccine. “The world has immense faith in India’s scientists and capacity of vaccine production,” Modi, 70, said in a video message.
Inside a 15,000-bed field hospital in Mumbai, authorities set up 15 vaccination booths and expected to inoculate up to 1,000 people on Saturday. “Back in May, it felt like a losing battle. We were getting 200 cases a day,” said Rajesh C Dere, 46, the dean. “Today I feel a great sense of satisfaction that we have succeeded.” The facility’s first recipient was a young female health worker in lab coat and mask. There was applause as she got the jab in her right arm and gave a thumbs-up with her left. Mohan Ganpat Nikam, 53, a security guard at another Mumbai hospital, said he was scared last year as the pandemic raged through the country. “I felt so happy when I heard that my name was on the list for vaccinations,” he told AFP.
Physiotherapist Smita Ringanekar, 42, said she spent months living in a hotel so she could help patients and not infect her aged parents at home. “I haven’t visited any of my friends or relatives for months,” she told AFP. “I have seen people dying,” said health worker Santa Roy, 35 in the eastern city of Kolkata, saying he now saw a “ray of hope”. Ram Babu, the first recipient in Patna, said he went to the temple on the way to the hospital, and was “so excited that I couldn’t sleep.”
New infection rates in India have fallen sharply in recent months. On Friday, 175 people died compared to almost 4,000 a day earlier in the United States. But experts are concerned a new wave might hit, fuelled by a string of recent mass religious festivals.
Authorities are drawing on their experience with India’s massive elections and child immunisation programmes for polio and tuberculosis. But in an enormous, impoverished nation with often shoddy transport networks and one of the world’s worst-funded healthcare systems, it is still a daunting undertaking.
Both approved vaccines need to be kept refrigerated, and others being developed will need to be stored at ultra-low temperatures - and in a country with scorching summers.There are also concerns about plans to manage the entire process digitally via India’s own app, CoWIN - of which there are already several fake versions.
And as in other countries, there is scepticism about the vaccine, fuelled by a torrent of hoaxes and baseless rumours online about the virus. For example, multiple Facebook and Twitter posts shared hundreds of times - debunked by AFP Fact Check - claimed no vegetarian had died from Covid. A recent survey of 18,000 people across India found that 69% were in no rush to get a Covid-19 jab.
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