Jameela trekked 6-7 hours to reach the upper reaches of Rajouri in Jammu. Ranjita crossed a forest and streams in Odisha’s Rayagada. Shajida navigated the Brahmaputra to reach the sandbars that dot the river and tributaries in Assam. Lalitha in Telangana’s Ranga Reddy and Padmawati in UP’s Rae Bareli went door to door, convincing residents to stretch their arms out.
And yet, if there is one story that captures the commitment of India’s Covid vaccinators — the health workers and officers who made the 100-crore record possible — it is about how a 25-year-old assistant was threatened with a snake but still managed to get its owner vaccinated.
It was on October 15 that Narendra Kumawat, a Covid Health Assistant in Ajmer, reached the home of Kamla in Kalbeliyon ka Dera, a settlement of snake charmers, in Nagelav village. “She asked who would be responsible if she dies after vaccination. She said the government is paying us to vaccinate people, and wanted in writing the name of the person to be held accountable for her death,” says Kumawat.
Kamla then went inside and got a “pitara (box)”. “I understood what it was for. So I started recording the scene on my mobile. She opened the box and there was a snake inside. She threatened us with it and said she could cast a spell over us,” says Kumawat.
“After much persuasion, she and her family were convinced, and we administered the vaccine to them,” he says.
Then there’s Dr Indira Parkhe, a medical officer in Pune’s Khed, who emerged from the trauma of her husband’s death in February to record a high of 5,900 vaccinations in a day. “I am sure my husband would have been very happy as our centre won several awards,” Parkhe says.
It’s this commitment that steered the efforts of immunisation officers like Dr Seema Garg in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur and Dr Rinchin Neema in Tawang of Arunachal Pradesh.
Garg says the biggest challenge was vaccine hesitancy among her department’s own healthcare workers. “My message was simple: You are not doing this for the government, but for your own safety,” she says. Today, of the 1,405 villages in Hoshiarpur, 348 are “fully vaccinated” — the highest from any district in Punjab.
For Neema, one of the most challenging assignments was a 12-hour trek to vaccinate a group of yak grazers in the remote border village of Lugthang, 14,000 ft above sea level. “In places like Arunachal Pradesh, where most people reside in remote areas, it is impossible for them to come to us. So we have to go to them…the last Indian citizens,” he says.
There are countless more such postcards of perseverance.
“I used to start early in the morning, leaving home at 6 for the Primary Health Centre to collect the vaccine… a two-hour walk one way with a nullah on the route. The nullah used to be swollen many times,’’ says Jameela, an ASHA worker and mother of three in Rajouri.
Walking through forests near the LoC in Kashmir’s Baramulla, Ishfaq Shabir and his team would “sometimes wait till 9 pm for people to return from work”.
For Reeta Fulmadri in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur, work didn’t end with the jab. “We had to handle the post-vaccination symptoms as well to ensure that some people with high fever didn’t discourage the entire region,” she says.
“There was a rumour that the vaccine was to kill people and so members of the tribe were very scared…we spent days talking to them, convincing them that we had taken the same jab, too,” says Ranjita Sabar about the effort to vaccinate the Dongria Kondh, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), in Kurli gram panchayat of Rayagada in Odisha.
In Gujarat’s tribal Chhota Udepur district, Saraswati Parmar stayed at the Primary Health Centre in Dugdha, about 30 km from her home, from May to July to ensure that the vaccination drive was not disrupted. “I left my seven-year-old daughter at my mother’s place,” she says.
Down south, Dr Shivappa S Gotyal and his team of vaccinators drove through the dense forests of Karnataka’s Kodagu and walked a long way further through slushy terrain to reach scattered tribal settlements in Virajpet.
Up towards the northeast, meanwhile, vaccination on the sandbars in Assam’s Goalpara mostly took place under the shade of trees. “Sometimes, only two people show up for the drive, so then we go door to door and make them take their jabs,” says Shajida Khatun, an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife.
Inside the Sundarbans in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas, Sunipa Patra Das sums it all up. “These few months have been the most tiring. Neither rain nor thunderstorm stopped the vaccination drive. We faced shortage of vaccine, too, but continued the work,” says Das, a Community Health Assistant.
And the 100-crore mark? “We feel proud that we are a part of it. But we are waiting for the day when we will be declared a fully vaccinated nation,” she says.
(With Hamza Khan, Anuradha Mascarenhas, Aishwarya Mohanty, Arun Sharma, Divya Goyal, Tora Agarwala, Sreenivas Janyala, Sweety Mishra, Lalmani Verma, Ralph Alex Arakal, Naveed Iqbal, Gargi Verma, Aditi Raja)