Uddipana Goswami, a 27-year-old Hyderabad-based corporate professional, is not quite holding her breath for a Covid-19 vaccine. “I trust our scientists and their work, but not politically driven statements,” said Goswami.
Goswami cited prime minister Narendra Modi’s address to opposition leaders at an all-party meeting in the first week of December where he said the vaccine would be available in India “within weeks.”
“Till the other day there was no vaccine, but suddenly after Britain, Mr Prime Minister announces that within weeks, a vaccine will come,” she said. “I am not a fool.”
Then, she pointed out “offensive statements” that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre, had made over the last couple of months. She was referring to the party promising free vaccines if voted to power during the Bihar Assembly and Hyderabad civil polls campaigns. “It is a shame that a humanitarian crisis has been turned into a political agenda,” she said.
No vaccination rush?
Goswami’s apprehensions may have to do more with her politics, but her hesitancy to get inoculated against Covid-19 may be more common than one might imagine. In an online survey carried out by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, which received over 25,000 responses from 262 districts, nearly 60% said they would not rush to take a vaccine even if it was available by February.
Considering the pandemic has completely upended people’s lives for almost a year—and vaccines are being projected as the only possible way to halt the virus’s charge—the results of the survey would perhaps appear to be somewhat counter-intuitive, notwithstanding the usual caveats of online surveys.
“Safe and effective”
Vaccine hesitancy is complex and driven by several factors.
But experts warn against drawing simplistic connections. Vaccine hesitancy—loosely defined as the phenomenon of people refusing to get inoculated despite the presence of a safe and effective vaccine—is complex and driven by several factors.
Also, the idea of “safe and effective” itself could be sometimes contested as conversations around Covid-19 vaccines illustrate. Many have raised questions on whether a vaccine developed within months—vaccine trials usually stretch over several years—can be deemed safe even if governments and corporations say so. “There is no way to know for sure that a vaccine is completely safe or effective with such a short period of testing over such few people,” said Prabir Chatterjee, a doctor in rural Bengal.
Chatterjee, who has been part of India’s national polio surveillance project in various capacities, said: “I am not saying the Pfizer vaccine, which has been said to be safe and effective, is not good because I do not know. But anyone who tells you it has no problems is also lying. There is simply no way to know so soon—it will take a year at least.”
Sandhya Srinivasan, a Mumbai-based public health researcher and journalist, said to wait and watch, as a section of people seems to be doing, “might be a very rational approach” in the context of the Covid-19 vaccine. It made sense, she said, “to weigh the possible risks of a new vaccine against one’s own perceived risk of serious illness.”
The trust factor
But the seeming reluctance among Indians vis-à-vis the Covid-19 vaccine, researchers say, may extend beyond concerns about its science. In other words, there could be others like Goswami who may not doubt the science of the vaccines as mu