Fearing lost wages, India’s urban poor shun COVID-19 vaccine
By Anuradha Nagaraj
As a second wave of COVID-19 cases sweeps India, some poor city workers are shunning vaccination because they fear losing a day’s pay to get the jab, or possible side effects that could force them to skip work for longer.
Authorities are scrambling to open vaccination centres in the slums, but uptake has been slower than expected - exposing deep inequalities in healthcare access and high rates of vaccine hesitancy, campaigners said.
Lakshmi, a domestic worker, said she and her security guard husband had decided not to take their elderly parents to get their vaccine shots, because they could not afford to take time off work to escort them and care for them afterwards, if needed.
“I have no idea about where and how to get the vaccine in any case,” said Lakshmi, 40, who lives in the Ranganatha Puram area of the southern port city of Chennai.
“All I know is many people on my street have said no to the vaccine. And a few who have, had muscle ache, fever and couldn’t go to work,” she said, asking not to give her full name.
At 47, Lakshmi’s husband is eligible for the vaccine, but like her, he is reluctant to take it.
Such views are common in city slums across the country of 1.3 billion people, which has reported the third-highest number of coronavirus cases after the United States and Brazil.
As infections and deaths spike once again, rights campaigners said there was ‘COVID fatigue’ among poor Indian workers, and an urgency to get back to work after lockdown curbs decimated their earnings last year.
“The fear of losing even a day’s salary is very real for many people who have to pay back huge debts accumulated during the lockdown,” said Josephine Valarmathi, Tamil Nadu State coordinator of the nonprofit National Domestic Workers’ Movement.
Others are misinformed about the possible side effects of vaccination, she said.
“Those with co-morbidities like thyroid or hypertension, are worried. There has been no big attempt to allay these fears.”
India reported on Monday its biggest single-day increase in coronavirus cases since October, taking the tally to more than 12 million. A total of 68,020 new infections were reported in the last 24 hours, the health ministry said.
Such numbers spurred the government to put a temporary hold on exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India.
Anyone aged over 45 is now eligible to be vaccinated in India, but getting a vaccine shot is a low priority for many working-class families.
In a poor neighborhood in Bengaluru’s Yashwantpura locality, Sima Sikligar said her family had decided against immunisation.
“We’re scared of getting injections and will not be able to afford any additional medical cost if it arises,” the teenager, who said her father worked selling knives, said by phone.
“My father can’t afford even a day off from work because we are surviving on his meagre earnings. Instead, we pray for our health everyday.”
There have been vaccine information campaigns in private hospitals and city apartment blocks, but there has been a shortage of such initiatives in the slums - highlighting long-standing health inequalities, charities and advocates said.
“Biases and problems with the functioning of urban health centres even prior to COVID-19 have become hindrances now,” said Vanessa Peter, founder of Charity Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities.
“We have often had slum dwellers telling us that doctors don’t touch them during check-ups and no one is willing to answer any questions. They are already unequal in the health system and the COVID-19 vaccination drive is no different.”
(Thomson Reuters Foundation)