Why COVID-19 vaccination drive is not effective in coastal areas of Thiruvananthapuram

In some coastal panchayats, youth organisations have opened vaccination registration counters to help residents register for the vaccination.
NGO Coastal Students Cultural Forum helping a man with vaccine registration
NGO Coastal Students Cultural Forum helping a man with vaccine registration
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On July 17, 2020, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan officially confirmed India’s first community transmission of COVID-19 — one of the first states in the country to admit it publicly. The community transmission, which happens when the source of the infection is not known, was reported in two coastal hamlets of Thiruvananthapuram — Poonthura and Pulluvila. Nearly 10 months later, as the drive to vaccinate people above 45 years of age is essential and underway, authorities have a difficult task in the coastal regions of Thiruvananthapuram. Many residents are yet to receive their first dose of vaccine. 

One of the major hurdles is that many residents are majorly influenced by misinformation and media reports on deaths after taking the vaccine — though the deaths have not officially been linked to the vaccine — which has induced fear among residents. The second challenge is the digital registration process to access the limited number of vaccine doses in the state, since the spot-resgistration is only for the second dose. The underlying factor is that most of the residents in the coastal regions are not literate, leading to a digital divide and making them gullible to misinformation.

“I got my first COVID-19 vaccine dose from Pulluvila hospital on April 27. But, that day, I only saw only one familiar face, a person from my village in Karumkulam. Most of the people who came to get vaccinated are not from the coastal regions,” said Janet, a 48-year-old resident of the village in Thiruvananthapuram.

Despite the assurance from experts as well as the government, misinformation about the side effects of the vaccine has been quick to spread among the fishing community, which is largely uneducated. Many residents have linked the death of actor Vivek in neighbouring Tamil Nadu to the vaccine, though it has been established that his death was not a side-effect of the vaccine.

“Tamil actor Vivek was a great actor. He died due to a heart attack, but people said he died after taking the COVID-19 vaccine. So, think about us, what can common people like us do? I’m afraid to take the vaccine; I will never take the vaccine,” said a 60-year-old resident of the Poovar coastal village.

It must be noted that medical experts across the globe have encouraged people to take the vaccine as it adds a layer of protection against COVID-19. The vaccine will not prevent one from contracting the infectious disease but will reduce its severity if one gets it. Both doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to research and experts, take at least two months to be completely effective, so the government has asked citizens to get vaccinated, but also maintain COVID-19 norms. Vaccinating the general populace in a widespread manner is the only way that the pandemic can be curbed and normalcy can be restored, experts have added.

In order to address the digital divide in coastal panchayats such Karumkulam, Pozhiyoor and Poovar, scores of youth organisations have voluntarily come forward to open vaccination registration counters, armed with their own laptops and internet connectivity. They have been helping the residents register for the vaccination, but because of the vaccine shortage, they have been able to find slots only for a few.

Besides, registration also requires a cell phone number of the beneficiary. A majority of the residents do not have mobile phones and hence, use the number of another person to register for the vaccination. If the registration never happens, it makes it difficult for the volunteers to track the phone number that was used during the process.

“We registered people above 45 years old via our COVID-19 vaccine registration desks and these are people from the Pozhiyoor region.We go to every house for the registration, but we stopped scheduling appointments even with the fewer slots available, as the hospitals where vaccines are available are far away. It is difficult for the residents to travel, especially the older citizens,” said Ajith, a resident and a panchayat member in Pozhiyoor.

Though the Kerala government has resumed spot registration for those above 45 years, the drive to persuade the residents to get vaccinated remains a challenge.

In Poonthura, which has a population of 12,886 residents, only 50 people have been vaccinated so far, said the Councillor of Ward 66 under the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. Social worker Shiju Basil and residents of Anjutheng, another fishing village in Thiruvananthapuram, also told TNM that only a few people within their limits have taken the vaccine dose. “When we started the vaccination process in April, we struggled to vaccinate 100 people per day,” said Shiju Basil.

One of the solutions that the coastal activists, youth volunteers and local leaders are suggesting to ensure effective vaccination in the region is to resume the earlier system of a local vaccination centre in the region, where the residents can register themselves by giving their photo ID proof and get the vaccine dose at the same time. The state government had this system of vaccine distribution in the first phase, but now people can access it only by digital scheduling. This year, what has become more necessary, is interactive vaccine awareness for these residents.

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