Breaking down vaccine hesitancy in Maharashtra’s Naxal-affected villages

Radheshyam Jadhav Pune | Updated on June 06, 2021

Health officials administering vaccine to a tribal villager

Kesari Neulu Telami is regarded no less than a demigod by the tribal community of remote Naxal-affected village Morkhandi in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. Telami, who is referred to as “pujari” (priest) locally, treats the tribals with traditional methods using medicinal plants. Elected unopposed, he heads the village panchayat. Since he was opposed to Covid-19 vaccines, questioning their efficacy, the villagers stayed away from the vaccination drive.

Difficult task

It was a nightmare for the local administration to convince villagers in the district to take the vaccine. That’s when they realised it was imperative to convince Telami, who was the biggest influential voice. As Manuj Jindal, Project Officer of Bhamragad and SDM of Etapalli, another village in the district, said, “Superstition and misinformation about Covid-19 is a major hurdle. We decided to approach community leaders and influential people like Prakash Amte, who have worked in the tribal community.”

At the same time, the administration formed Gram Samitis comprising local villagers and Health Department officials. Messages of community leaders were recorded in local languages and a communication drive launched.

The administration’s efforts fructified. Telami says that vaccination is important and can save lives. He admits that even as traditional medicinal methods are vital in the lives of tribal people, one has to take a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus. He was the first person in his village to get a vaccine and then the entire village lined up.

Dense forest

In this belt, many villages are located in dense forests and hilly terrain making access for government officials difficult. The Madia tribe is recognised as a particularly vulnerable group by the government.

“One has to conduct a dialogue and answer all questions raised by the community. Only then will the community get convinced. One cannot force anything on them,” says Sachin Adsul, a district information official.

But with influential voices like Telami now leading by example, the Covid-19 vaccination drive has finally gained momentum in Gadchiroli.

Published on June 06, 2021

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