The secret in a sense of India's Covid-19 vaccine programme, which is marking its one-year anniversary after delivering more than 1.5 billion vaccine doses, are grassroots women health workers, Trend reports citing India Today.
It is not widely recognised yet that these women health providers working in villages and far-flung hamlets have been at the forefront of controlling the pandemic and ensuring that its worst effect would not linger on. The role of the Accredited Social Health Activist (Asha) workers deserves underling even as India tackles the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
These rural frontline health workers deliver primary healthcare and health information across the country, and they number around a million. They are often the first port of call and the earliest responders to an emergency in rural communities.
When the pandemic hit the country, they were immediately propelled into action -- directly on the frontline of tackling the spread of the pandemic.
Often dressed in pink, setting them clearly apart for identification, these women have traversed the length and breadth of India. They have been to places where other, more traditional medical service, either is not immediately available or would take too long to muster up. They ensure that information about the need for vaccinations, information about other methods to fight Covid-19, and critically the vaccines themselves are provided at the very doorstep of the residents. No matter if they are in a dense jungle or upon a distant mountain.
Carrying boxes of vaccines, these women have trudged up hills, and cut through woods, they have crossed rivers and streams, and tackled extreme climatic conditions, to ensure a last mile connectivity which is unique by all standards.
The most inaccessible tribal villages and islands have seen the presence of Asha workers, who sometimes even rowed boats themselves (like in one instance in Rajasthan), to reach places where the vaccine would not have otherwise reached.
In the course of fulfilling their duty often at personal risk, these women have encountered not just rough terrain but also adverse public opinion. Especially in the early days of vaccination, public opinion in many places was poisoned by wrong or mischievous information. Sometimes this was even propagated for nefarious reasons by prominent influencers who spread vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.
It was the Asha workers who were at the frontline of convincing people in the smallest and remotest places of India that the best way to fight the Covid-19 pandemic was to take the vaccine. Their work is a global case study n how to use language and communication to build confidence even among communities where education levels might be low and access to information sketchy.
By talking to such groups, sometimes visiting the same community again and again to convince naysayers, Asha workers played an invaluable role in countering vaccine hesitancy.
This is why India has not seen the kind of mass protests against vaccination that some parts of the West are seeing. There is little mass mobilisation against vaccination in India. The role of the Asha workers in ensuring that doubts and hesitancy towards vaccines are countered by authenticated information, and their own sheer persistent, encouraging presence, has made an enormous difference.
In conservative communities where women would perhaps have less access to information and vaccine delivery if provided only by men, the presence of these women health workers have made all the difference.
They have brought much-needed gender parity and highlighted how grassroots work by women can be transformative during widespread health crises. In many ways their work has been reminiscent of the kind of role played by Sister Nivedita to take one major example from Indian history and her women volunteers in fighting the plague in Calcutta.
India’s massive vaccination programme is, therefore, unique not only because of its scale and efficiency but one of its less commented upon aspects is the role women have played in ensuring its reach and success.
In breaking taboos and hesitations, in reaching places which seemed impossible to access, in countering misinformation, gossip and malicious propaganda, these women workers have played an exemplary role in delivering Covid-19 vaccines in the world’s largest democracy.
This work is not yet over and it is important to remember that even as India marks one year of its vaccine delivery efforts that in many areas it is these women health workers who continue to be its cheerful, positive, confidence-building face every day.