India did not have a vaccination hesitancy crisis till the government mismanaged COVID-19

20 August 2021
Ram Brij (center) who refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, sits with his family in Rampur village, Uttar Pradesh 9 June. India's vaccination effort is being undermined by vaccine hesitancy, fueled by misinformation and mistrust.
Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo
Ram Brij (center) who refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, sits with his family in Rampur village, Uttar Pradesh 9 June. India's vaccination effort is being undermined by vaccine hesitancy, fueled by misinformation and mistrust.
Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo

The prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has accused the opposition, especially the Congress party, for increasing vaccine hesitancy in India during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Ministers and other members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance and supporters of the government have said that the Congress tried to ridicule the Covaxin vaccine. The union government has heavily promoted Covaxin as an indigenous solution since it was developed entirely by the Indian company Bharat Biotech. It also blamed the Congress for trying to sow doubt about COVID-19 vaccines in the minds of people. In January 2021, Harsh Vardhan, who was then the union health minister, said that “vested political interests” were spreading vaccine hesitancy. A few months later, in April, he claimed that the Congress had been spreading vaccine hesitancy throughout the pandemic. 

The Modi government has been quick to point out, and rightly so, that India has not had a history of vaccine hesitancy. What it has refused to acknowledge, however, is that its lack of transparency, unreasonable requirements for access and flip-flops on vaccine policy have been the largest contributors to vaccine hesitancy. 

In 2012, the World Health Organisation established the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation and a working group on vaccine hesitancy. In 2014, SAGE working group produced a report that defined vaccine hesitancy as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services.” The report noted that vaccine hesitancy is complex and context specific, and varies across time, place, and vaccines. Growing vaccine hesitancy in India is a multi-dimensional problem and more complex than the conspiratorial narrative of a political sabotage of the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccination drive. 

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    Akshay Tarfe is a media specialist at Oxfam India.

    Keywords: coronavirus COVID-19 Covid-19 vaccine covidshield covaxin Pfizer Narendra Modi World Health Organisation Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
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