50-year-old Lakshmi* has exactly 10 days left before her second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. While she experienced mild side effects after receiving her first dose, at a primary health care centre in Chennai's Thousand Lights constituency, she was back to normal in two days and carried on with the housework she was employed to do in the neighbourhood. Despite her experience, however, she remains the only person in her joint family of 10 members to have gotten the vaccine.
"My husband who is 70 years old has refused to get the shot. He has both blood pressure and diabetes but nothing I say can convince him," she laments. "Even the rest of my family, who are all older to me believe that the vaccine will have severe repercussions and untold side effects. The death of actor Vivek, a day after getting the shot, in particular, has made them very rigid in their stance," she adds, exasperated.
Lakshmi is not alone in her fight against misinformation to get her family vaccinated. Across Tamil Nadu, health authorities are struggling to combat false news and rumours that fuel vaccine hesitancy in the state. Chennai city health officers and three district authorities who spoke to TNM, confirm that the death of actor and comedian Vivek on April 17, a day after receiving his vaccine, and the consequent failure of the government to nullify the fear it created has dealt a blow to the state's vaccine drive.
It is close to a month since the comedian died after a cardiac arrest, a condition that the health department stated had nothing to do with the vaccine he received on April 16. Despite multiple press conferences, clarifications and even threats against false news surrounding his death, on the ground, vaccine hesitancy is still visible.
"In Chennai, there have been high levels of hesitancy in areas like Tondiarpet and Thiru Vi Ka Nagar for various reasons," says MS Hemalaltha, city medical officer. "People are expressing fear over false news regarding the side-effects of the vaccine," she adds.
According to health ministry data, as of Tuesday, Tamil Nadu had administered 48,72,906 first doses of the vaccine, which is 6.75 per cent of the total population, and 17,15,175 second doses, which makes up only 2.37 per cent of its population.
"After the second wave hit, we saw a lot of positive response to the vaccine with a large number of residents coming to get the shot in one day in Tiruvannamalai," says a senior district official. "But after the Vivek incident, there was a lot of fear amongst people. The government tried to use a celebrity to increase awareness and it backfired. And now the only way to counter this is to bring more celebrities on board and show that the vaccine is safe," he adds.
Thoothukudi Collector Senthil Raj, who oversees the district that the deceased actor hails from, admits that fighting misinformation has been a challenging task.
"After Vivek's death, residents think vaccination will have effects that have not been explained to them," says the Collector. "From political leaders to IPS officers, we all need to spread awareness on ground to remove any doubt regarding the vaccine," he adds.
53-year-old Susheela, a resident of Tirunelveli district says she has no intention of getting the vaccine.
"I am afraid of the side-effects after getting the shot. What if there is a lot of pain? I am too old to handle such things. My work at home will completely get disrupted," she claims.
Like Susheela, several other residents who spoke to
Senthil Raj points out that such hesitancy due to misinformation will have to be fought only systematically and through facts.
"Initially even doctors hesitated to take the vaccine and that trickled down to other groups. But now they have confidence in the vaccine and we have vaccinated 90% of health care and frontline workers in the district," he says.
A senior district official from Tirunelveli meanwhile says that residents of urban areas are easier to vaccinate in comparison to rural regions in districts.
"Tirunelveli is predominantly rural and there is a myth amongst this population that COVID-19 will not affect them because they were not affected much in the first wave," he explains. "The agricultural belt, that is the heart of Tirunelveli, was not affected by COVID-19. Convincing them to get a vaccine is difficult," he adds.
Tirunelveli, according to the official, is managing to administer around 600 vaccinations a day and like other districts needs to ramp up its efforts.
Across districts in the state, authorities are ramping up efforts to spread awareness and sensitise local residents.
"We are focusing on conducting more vaccine surveillance camps and roping in town panchayats and local bodies," says the Thoothukudi collector. "We have formed 96 teams to speak to local communities which are close-knit and need to be made aware of the benefits of the vaccine. If there are 50-100 people mobilised we arrange special camps to administer the vaccine," he explains.
Another important aspect of increasing vaccination, according to the collector, is incentivising communities that come forwards.
"We will give tags for the village such as corona-free or completely vaccinated to include them in the larger drive of awareness," he says.
In Tiruvannamalai meanwhile, district authorities say that hesitancy is high amongst those above the age of 60.
"So we are targeting old age home and pensioners’ associations for awareness campaigns," says a district authority. "We are also simultaneously approaching industries and other large clusters where lots of people can be communicated with at once. During the fever camps people are encouraged to go get vaccines," he adds.
In Tirunelveli too health authorities are carrying out cohort-based targeting.
"We are ensuring that government servants, who are also frontline workers and are exposed to people, like the electricity board are given first priority," says the district official. "Slowly the numbers are increasing for vaccination," he adds.
As for shortages of the vaccine, officials say districts are faring better than Chennai. Officials from all three districts agree that there was a shortage for close to a week in April but that stocks were replenished soon after.
"In Chennai, there is definitely a shortage of Covaxin but Covishield is adequately available," says city medical officer MS Hemalatha. "We are working towards addressing this discrepancy," she adds.
Till the end of April, Tamil Nadu led the country with the highest amount of wastage at 8%. As of Tuesday though, the wastage has come down to 3.94%. Most of this wastage, according to officials who spoke to TNM, comes from Chennai and neighbouring districts.
"We get indent on a daily basis based on how many people we are expecting in the coming days. There is no wastage in districts like Tiruvannamalai," says a top district official.
In Chennai meanwhile, the city health officers admit that wastage numbers were high when vaccination began.
"But this is because of initial numbers where we would open the vial but people wouldn't turn up," she says. "Now this has drastically reduced. Wastage is being kept minimal."
*Name changed to protect identity