Ever since India started “the world’s largest vaccination programme” on 16 January, reluctance to take part has been one of the biggest obstacles the programme has faced. There are reports that nearly 200 people jumped into the Sarayu River, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to avoid the jab which they think is an “injection of poison”.
India’s federal minority affairs ministry has decided to launch a pan-Indian campaign to tackle concerns and myths about the inoculation drive because of the severe reluctance shown by Muslims and those living in the remote countryside to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There are many rumours such as that the vaccine can kill, or lead to impotency, and that lemon juice can cure COVID-19. This misinformation is spreading like wildfire over social media, especially in the rural parts of the country,” a ministry official told Sputnik on Thursday.
Last month, the popular South Indian actor Vivek died two days after taking the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital where he died made it clear that Vivek had been suffering from advanced heart disease, but his death prompted rumours that he was killed by the vaccine, spreading fear among locals. After his death, the Karnataka state government held many press conferences where health officials tried to convince the people, but many are adamant about not taking the vaccine.
“Last week in a vaccination drive, only 20 people from the Kollegal township in Chamarajanagar district of Karnataka state turned up for vaccination,” the official said, adding that hesitation to be vaccinated has been growing even since the ‘COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Strategy’.
In India, most of the rumours spread via WhatsApp, which has more than 400 million users in the country. Unlike other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is an encrypted platform that allows users to exchange messages privately.
“Vaccine reluctance is very common in India. Years back, when polio vaccinations started, many Muslims in Uttar Pradesh believed that the children who were inoculated would become impotent in the future. Back then, the government launched a huge campaign; now, a similar step is needed,” veteran journalist Abid Shah said.
According to the federal health ministry, as of 9 June, 47 million people – that is, just above 3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population – have received two doses, and around 148 million – or 14 percent of the population – have received a first dose.