Misinformation and fear are keeping tribal people in Karnataka away from vaccination

Although some tribal members are getting vaccinated, many are gullible and fall for misinformation, noted the activists, ASHA workers and government officials working with tribal communities.
A woman from Lambani community dressed in traditional attire
A woman from Lambani community dressed in traditional attire

“In the tandas (hamlets of the Lambani tribe), everyone has a theory about coronavirus and the vaccine,” said Arya*, a member of the Scheduled Caste, based in Karnataka’s Bellary district. “On one hand, people say the vaccine causes fever or death, while others say COVID-19 is just a regular fever and that such ailments have been prevalent through centuries and will recede on its own,” she said, explaining why COVID-19 vaccination is a moot point among the tribal community. “This belief, however, stems from the WhatsApp forwards over the vaccine,” said Arya, whose parents got their first dose of vaccine, but are hesitant to get the second one.

People from over 50 different tribes, notified by the Union government, reside in Karnataka, including Lambani, Jenu and Kaadu Kurubas, who have settled in Bellary, Kodagu and Mysuru districts. TNM spoke to the community members, healthcare workers, ASHA workers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have been working with the ethnic groups to get them vaccinated against COVID-19. They noted that the tribal residents are still hesitant to get vaccinated due to the misinformation surrounding the infection and trust in herbal medicines. The tribal groups believe that their concoctions made with herbal ingredients will safeguard them against the virus.

Saroja*, an ASHA worker from Bellary, said that she was verbally abused every time she visited the Lambani hamlets in the district. “When we ask them to get vaccinated, the residents dismiss us saying they won’t contract the novel coronavirus. Subsequently, many believe that the vaccine is a hoax or that getting inoculated will cause kidney and other problems. Such misplaced beliefs are prevalent due to the misinformation they consume from messenger apps,” she said. Some believe that COVID-19 is also a hoax, she added.

Saroja observed that instances where many residents received bad care at a state-run facility also contributed significantly to their reluctance to visit the hospitals again. “The people are not treated well when they visit the government facility either during pregnancy or when extremely sick. Such instances remain etched in their minds, firming their reluctance and distrust of the healthcare system. This is one of the reasons they hesitate to get vaccinated,” she noted, adding that even if doctors visit their hamlets they turn them away.

Chinnamahadev, an activist associated with the Swami Vivekananda youth movement that works with tribal communities in Mysuru district, said that the residents reject any type of medicine, including modern medicine, because they create their own herbal medication. “The Jenu Kuruba and Kaadu Kuruba communities have survived in the interiors of the forests in Mysuru district for so long by relying on their herbal medicines. It has made them reject any other kinds of medicines. The members of the community believe that they are immune to the coronavirus infection, and that their herbal medicine will help them see through the pandemic,” he said.

Chinnamahadev observed that addressing hesitancy among tribal elders and getting them inoculated has greatly helped in getting others in the community vaccinated. “The elders of the tribes are well-respected in their communities. After convincing them to take the vaccines first, we witnessed a better response. They realised that vaccines are safe. However, the fever, a common side-effect after receiving the jab, has scared them from getting completely inoculated,” he said. According to the activist, around 3,000 members of the Kurubu community (which fall under the Other Backward Class category in Karnataka) have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dr Yumna, who is associated with the Vivekananda Memorial Hospital run by the NGO, said that the foundation has been working with tribal communities for 30 years. She said that educational programmes on the pandemic were conducted for the residents. She added that governmental agencies also approach the community through them as the residents have grown comfortable with them. Chinnamahadev further said that they have been trying to create an increased number of awareness programmes for the tribal communities.

The District Health Officers in Kodagu told TNM that they observed hesitancy among the tribal communities to some extent, while the Bellary DHO refuted the claim and said that there was no vaccine hesitancy and that everyone was taking the vaccine.

The Mysuru DHO said that they are presently focusing on vaccinating those above 45 years of age. “As of now, we’re seeing people from these tribal communities coming and getting the vaccine at our PHCs. As soon as we receive enough doses, we will take up vaccine drives in their hamlets,” the official told TNM.

Kodagu DHO K Mohan said that the situation was fine as people from the tribal communities were getting vaccinated. “Many from these tribal communities have been coming and taking vaccines. However, hesitancy prevails to some extent. The notion that they are people of the forest, they are immune to disease and that they have herbal medicines has been adding to the vaccine hesitancy. We’re conducting awareness programmes with NGOs and doing our best to get them inoculated,” said Mohan.

Experts across the globe have stressed that amid the new mutations and variants of the coronavirus, the vaccine offers a layer of protection and can prevent severe illness to anyone who contracts COVID-19. There is no scientific backing or studies to show that herbal concoctions offer any protection against the disease.

(*Names changed on request)

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