An old mistrust of government keeps Jharkhand’s Adivasis away from COVID-19 vaccines

30 May 2021
A health worker from the Jharkhand government conducts thermal screening  of a resident of Chaite village in Namkum block of Ranchi district on 21 May 2021.
A health worker from the Jharkhand government conducts thermal screening  of a resident of Chaite village in Namkum block of Ranchi district on 21 May 2021.

Guruwari Jamuda died in Baralagia village in Jharkhand’s West Singbhum district 11 days after she took a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The small village is home to about two thousand people predominantly from the Ho Scheduled Tribe.  Sixty five-year-old Jamuda, who is also a member of the Ho community, developed a fever soon after she got the shot on 15 April, according to Birendr, her neighbour. The fever did not abate for days. Jamuda’s son took her to the Tata Memorial Hospital in Jamshedpur about 70 kilometres from the village, where she died on 26 April. “She was absolutely fine before taking the vaccine,” Birendr said. “Her son took his mother to a reputed hospital for treatment but could not save her.”

Jamuda’s death is one of many incidents that has deepened existing distrust of the public-health system across Jharkhand’s rural regions and among its Scheduled Tribe communities. The main reasons for this mistrust of public-health facilities and healthcare workers among Adivasi communities are the failures of successive governments to build a strong and responsive heath system. Harsh lockdowns, coercive testing and quarantining measures and delays in aid have deepened that mistrust during the COVID-19 epidemic. News of deaths and illness after COVID-19 vaccinations added to people’s reluctance to seek healthcare from the government. 

A 54-year-old Accredited Social Health Activist or ASHA—or “sahiya,” as they are called in Jharkhand—in the Khunti block got her second dose on 28 March. Soon after, she started experiencing fever, acute abdominal pain, appetite loss, weakness and breathing difficulties. “I became so weak that I could not walk 15 steps or hold my documents,” she said, and requested not to be identified. She told me she went to a doctor four days later, who gave her “an injection” for the pain and an inhaler to help with her breathlessness. However, her road to feeling better was long. 

She pegs the start of her recovery only around 10 May. Meanwhile, she treated herself with some medicinal herbs and steam inhalation. “I informed my ANM and other senior government officials but they said that they did not believe this happened due to the vaccine, and is probably because of other reasons. So, why should I go to them for any advice?” An ANM is an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife who functions as a village-level health worker and, along with an ASHA, is one of the first people that a village resident can contact in case of a health problem. 

 “She was convinced that she is going to die,” the sahiya’s husband said. “She still feels the weakness around her waist, and is unable to do a lot of physical work. Looking at her, I have decided not to take the vaccine. Several people have also died after taking the vaccine.”

Varsha Poddar is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and social activist in Jharkhand.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus Jharkhand Accredited Social Health Activist primary health centres