India’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, billed by the government as the world’s biggest immunisation campaign, has got off to a tepid start. Hesitancy among frontline health workers, who are being inoculated on priority, glitches in the functioning of the Co-WIN app, and doubts about the safety of the ‘prematurely approved’ Covaxin vaccine are the main reasons for the lower-than-expected turnout at the majority of vaccination centres across the country. Most states and UTs are falling short of their targets, with Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry being the prominent laggards. The far-from-encouraging numbers have prompted NITI Aayog member (health) Dr VK Paul to remind healthcare workers, especially doctors and nurses, of their societal responsibility. Asserting that both Covishield and Covaxin are safe, he has dismissed concerns about adverse effects as ‘unfounded, negligible and insignificant’.
Despite the government’s assurances, the fact that Covaxin was given emergency use authorisation in the clinical trial mode is weighing heavily on the minds of some of the intended recipients. The fear of being treated like a guinea pig is probably making them shy away from the jab. The delay in releasing efficacy data for the vaccine’s Phase 3 trials has aggravated the trust deficit. The reluctance of the ‘Covid warriors’ can demotivate the masses. The resulting ripple effect will be detrimental to the whole programme that has been launched after months of painstaking research and trials.
Transparency and communication are of essence when crores of citizens are to be inoculated. The government should be proactive in addressing AEFI (adverse events following immunisation). Also at stake is the country’s reputation as the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines. India, which has started exporting the shots, can’t allow apprehensions and misconceptions to gain ground. The onus is on senior doctors and medical officers to come forward to receive the jab; dilly-dallying on their part will send a wrong message to the juniors. Though there has been a significant decline in coronavirus cases and fatalities in recent weeks in India, the role of vaccines in containing the pandemic can’t be overstated. The authorities need to quickly get their act together to smoothen the rollout.