India’s Vaccinators, Chhattisgarh: ‘Convincing the villagers to get the shot was an uphill battle’

Reeta Fulmadri can’t forget the day after Independence Day this year when she got stuck in neck-deep water in a nullah on the way to Chote Sunkanpalli village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district. Fulmadri, 28, is the second-in-command at the Maoist-affected district’s Lingagiri sub-center. She was trekking to the village when the nullah suddenly filled up with water. “I was with another colleague, and both of us were sure that the water would come up only upto our waists. But while crossing the nullah, we felt the water flow and level increase. Right in the middle, I lost my footing because of the water flow, and when I regained balance, the water was up to my neck,” recounted Fulmadri, who’s been working in the area in the same post for the last five years. “We make the rounds for regular vaccines as well, but there are more regulations for Covid-19 vaccines, as they need to be temperature controlled,” she added.

Fulmadri who is responsible for vaccination in six villages that fall under the Lingagiri sub-center in Usoor tehsil had to cross more than geographical barriers of hills and nullahs to vaccinate more than 5,000 people. “We could start vaccination only after June because of shortage of doses. Even then, convincing the villagers to get the shot was an uphill battle,” she said. With vaccine hesitancy at its peak at the time, she organised countless sessions with different target groups, before taking the vaccine to the village. “We would counsel the village elders, the women, patiently addressing their worries,” she said. “The tribal people were worried that the vaccine would cause impotence or sterility. I would tell them that I am an unmarried woman from the village and I have gotten vaccinated. Why would I not want children for myself or others?”

Reeta Fulmadri vaccinating a local tribal in Bijapur’s bade Sunkanpalli village.

For villages at a distance of over 15 km from the closest main road, and zero Covid-19 cases, communicating the urgency of vaccines was another challenge for the health workers, Fulmadri said. “They would ask why get a vaccine when we had no Covid-19 cases. We had to convince them that vaccination was the only way to ensure that no Covid-19 cases came even later,” she said.

For Fulmadri, the vaccination didn’t just end at jabbing in distant villages. “We had to handle the post-vaccination symptoms as well, to ensure that some people getting high fever don’t discourage the entire region from vaccination. We would tell them that getting a fever is a positive sign. But people panicked, so we would visit or sometimes stay back in the village, to reassure them until the symptoms subsided,” she said.

Fulmadri’s trips needed security clearance as well, both from the police and the Maoists. “We got threatened by some villagers in the area that if something would happen to them, we would have to answer to the ‘andar wale’ (a local euphemism for Maoists). But since I am from the region, I could convince them to see logic and reason by telling them that I would not go anywhere even if something unforeseen happened,” she said. She added, laughing, “We have faced so many mental barriers, that jabbing was the easiest part of the entire process.”

Fulmadri’s job is still half done, as several people await their second jab. “We were vaccinating more than 50 people every day, but they got vaccinated in August or September, so their dates for the second dose haven’t come yet. We would face lesser challenges now, as people are aware that the first jab didn’t harm them. But just convincing them to come back for the second shot might be an uphill challenge,” she said.

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