Nawada: When a Covid-19 vaccination team reached the house of 35-year-old Lalita Devi, a Mahadalit in Bihar’s Nawada district, she got so upset that she shooed them away.
Lalita’s objection was that the government isn’t paying people to take the vaccine.
“Lockdown laga deve toh sarkar humari ka ek rupyaa deve? Suiya le leve to sarkar humri ka ek rupyaa deve? Ee maati ka ghar hai, din raat kamave ke suiya leve? Kaahe leve suiya?” she told ThePrint in Bhojpuri.
Roughly translated, she said: “The government announced lockdown but didn’t give us a penny. Now it wants us to get this vaccine. But it still won’t us a penny. I live in this kaccha house. We work day and night to earn our bread. Should we leave our work to get this vaccine? Why should we do that?”
This incident from 31 May isn’t an isolated one. Nearly everyone in Amarpur Mushari, a tola (a caste-based segregated area in a village), is asking the same question: Why should they take a free vaccine without any monetary incentive?
The explanation that it could help them escape the coronavirus doesn’t cut it with these tolas, according to ASHA workers and auxilliary nurse midwives (ANMs) with ThePrint.
Rani Urmila, a 54-year-old ANM in Nawada said, “They believe that corona is an ‘AC disease’. It will never reach the working class. ‘So why is the government giving them a free vaccine? What is the motive behind this?’”
Across Mahadalit tolas in several districts of the state, ThePrint found that villagers were more curious about the monetary benefits with a free vaccine. On being told this will save them from the virus, most of them turned hostile.
Amarpur, with approximately 160 households, is one of the tolas in Kharant panchayat in Nawada Sadar block. The panchayat of 5,294 people has nine Mahadalit tolas.
Mahadalits are the poorest social groups within the Dalit community and form around 15 per cent of Bihar’s population.
There are 1,539 Mahadalit tolas in the Nawada district. According to the 2011 census, the Mahadalit population in Nawada is 1,41,949.
Block Development Officer (BDO) Kumar Shailendra said, “There is a lot of misinformation that once you take the jab, you will get a fever for few days. We are sending teams but no one turns up.”
ANM Rani Urmila told ThePrint over a call, “Ten days have passed since the BDO’s visit, nine more people have been vaccinated so far. This makes it a total of 24 people vaccinated in the tola. No one is ready to get vaccinated. Not even for free.”
‘Vaccine drives should be like elections’
Speaking to ThePrint, Bhanta, a Dom (Mahadalit caste) in Rohtas district, compared the vaccination drive to elections.
“They give us money during elections. Why not support us now with the free vaccine when we are unemployed during this lockdown,” he asked.
Standing next to him, his wife said, “We belong to the lowest of all castes. The government should talk to us. It should give us some benefits along with the jab,” she said.
But it’s not just monetary benefits that people are seeking, many show hesitance too.
Ajay Manjhi, a Mahadalit who calls himself Ajay Devgan, said, “If we get infected, we will look up to God, not towards the government for help. Even if we die due to corona, we will not take the vaccine.”
Other districts note hesitancy too
Purnea District Magistrate Rahul Kumar also spoke of the vaccine hesitancy in the poorest communities in schedule castes and some religious groups, and the hostility faced by ASHA workers.
“We have always successfully implemented women and child-centric welfare schemes through ASHA workers and ANMs so far. This work force has been most effective till now. But this time, men need to be convinced and ASHA workers are facing a lot of hostility,” he said.
“There are many reasons behind this. First, there is a lot of misinformation across castes and classes. But poorest communities in Dalits and religious communities are more rigid. Second, there is a monetary benefit angle to this,” he said.
“Now we have to rope in the Vikas Mitras and PDS dealers, who have a strong influence in their communities,” added Kumar.
How Nawada administration is trying to tackle the problem
ThePrint accompanied one vaccination team — comprising the BDO, ANMs, and ASHA workers — to the Amarpur tola to find out about vaccine hesitancy among the Mahadalits in Bihar.
Upon seeing the team, nearly half the villagers ran towards the fields. Few women and children remained in the houses, but most didn’t respond to ASHA workers.
The team was led by 47-year-old Mahendra Manjhi, the husband of an ASHA worker, Dhanno Devi.
Manjhi was among the 15 vaccinated on 26 May during a vaccination camp in the village. Of the 15, eight were women and seven were men. Most men belonged to the families of either ASHA workers or ANMs.
The district administration has chosen Manjhi as a role model to motivate the tola to get vaccinated.
Speaking about this approach, Nawada District magistrate Yashpal Meena said, “We will pick up few role models in the tolas. This person will then further motivate others to get vaccinated.”
The trend of vaccination is increasing day-by-day, said Meena. “Due to lesser penetration of literacy in these areas, the vaccination drive in these areas is slower than other areas.”
Nawada vaccinated 3,725 people on 10 June, which included 3,660 people who took their first dose and 65 who took their second dose. On 1 June, the district had vaccinated 605 people.
According to him, senior administrative officers of district, sub-division and block level are visiting areas that have lower penetration of vaccination, specially Mahadalit tolas, to motivate people, addressing their concerns, and clarifying rumours.
The administration is also sending vaccination teams to Mahadalit tolas and panchayats so that people get the shots at places most convenient to them.
“There is good sign of progress in last 10 days. We are vaccinating more number of people from Mahadalit tolas, including 18+ and 45+ daily,” added Meena.