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Yes, Congrats India On Vaccination Milestone, But Let’s Credit The Real Heroes Of This War

India's vaccination drive has truly worked only because of the untiring efforts of our female workforce. The nation needs to take notice of their needs and grievances, and compensate them in accordance with their contribution.

India’s vaccination drive has truly worked only because of the untiring efforts of our female workforce. The nation needs to take notice of their needs and grievances, and compensate them in accordance with their contribution.

On August 27th, a milestone in India’s COVID-19 vaccination drive was achieved. Ten million people got inoculated in a single day. This comes only a couple of days after we at least partially vaccinated about 50% of the adult population.

The pace of vaccination has picked up, finally catching up to the global average.

This is somewhat of a relief to the large masses of this nation who have suffered incredible losses and hardships during the various stages of COVID-19 induced lockdown the country had found itself in in the past eighteen months.

Many, including the WHO chief scientist of Indian origin Soumya Swaminathan took to social media to celebrate this milestone, with ‘Congratulations India’ trending on Twitter.

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Many capitalised on this feat to celebrate the central government under the leadership of PM Modi, and trolled the opposition and critics of BJP.

But who really comprises the ‘India’ we need to be congratulating? Is it PM Modi and his govt, or the about 30 million frontline workers who have put themselves through exceptional circumstances to ensure a successful vaccination drive?

A grassroots healthcare system mostly driven by women

Of the frontline workers associated with healthcare departments and vaccination drives, almost half are women, and among qualified nurses and midwives, as much as 88.9% are women. Not to mention that due to gendered division of labour and power structures, informal and domestic care-givers, too, are disproportionately female.

The buttress of the entire vaccination drive and the credit for whatever success it achieves goes to the female frontline workers who have had to weather various storms to ensure the vaccines reach the people.

From spreading awareness to administration of the jabs, female frontline workers have assumed roles of gigantic proportions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. ASHA workers, anganwadi workers and their supervisors have been making door-to-door visits to combat vaccine hesitancy, holding advisory sessions, helping with contact tracing, and trying to overcome the digital divide by helping people with accessing the CoWin app. The vaccination centres, too, are dominated by higher presence of female workers, even while the gender disparity in the access to vaccination remains dismal.

How the needs of the female frontline workers are systematically overlooked

The last one year brought to the fore how the healthcare industry is entirely dependent on nurses, mid-wives, ASHA workers, anganwadi workers, aayahs, sweepers and other female frontline workers, and yet how the government refuses to ensure even their basic requirements. ASHA workers had to come to the streets to demand sufficient compensation, basic safety precautions like PPE kits, vaccination for their family members and legal employee status.

The government views them as ‘honorary workers’ who are not eligible for the benefits government employees accrue from the state. But their expected work hours have dramatically increased. Not just this, the data on the mortality among these frontline workers is also mostly absent from records – another example of what the powers that be really think about them.

A survey from Telangana and Bihar found that 58.3% of anganwadi workers and 75% of nurses have been working for 7-8 hours daily. Even when the work is supposed to be on a voluntary basis at nominal salaries, which in some states are as little as Rs. 1000 per month in Uttar Pradesh and Rs. 4500 in West Bengal.

They also have to battle stigma and social isolation for their frontline work in contagious environments. Nurses have had to traverse long and risky terrains, sometimes on foot or on mules, to reach the different corners of the nation to administer the vaccines. Many have lost their lives to COVID, and except for a couple of cases, the families did not receive insurance money. These women are overworked, underpaid and entirely taken for granted, even as they have become the face of the vaccination drive in urban slums and rural areas.

The infrastructure available and what still needs to be done

President Ram Nath Kovind while applauding the vaccination policy on the eve of this year’s Independence Day, insisted that there should be no scope for rest until every individual has been vaccinated.

The Modi government had promised complete vaccination of the entire adult population by the end of 2021. To fully vaccinate the 950 million adult population we need 1.9 billion vaccines. According to the data from the official website of the state, about 600 million doses, including the 10 million milestone of 27th August, have been administered. This leaves the state with exactly one billion two hundred and eighty seven million ten thousand eight hundred and sixty six (1,287,010,866) jabs that are yet to be administered. This would further burden the frontline workers to increase their efforts, while they remain underappreciated and unprotected.

During question hour in Parliament in February, the government shared the details of the infrastructure of Universal Immunisation Programme, which is being utilised to implement the vaccination policy. The Immunisation Programme was first introduced in the fifth Five Year Plan in 1978, and then modified in 1985 as ‘Universal Immunisation Programme’. It has the capacity to vaccinate 26 million children and 30 million pregnant women annually. Of course the requirements have increased exponentially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This pressure on the existing system translates into pressure on the frontline workers. This brings the spotlight on the need to keep existing infrastructure robust and flexible to changing needs of the nation.

In this fight against the COVID-19 virus, working class and lower middle class women have come out as the buttress of the healthcare system. Yet they remain overworked, underpaid, unprotected, underappreciated and exploited. All the milestones that the vaccination drive touches have been possible only because of the untiring efforts of our female workforce. The nation needs to take notice of their needs and grievances, and compensate them in accordance with their contribution. And acknowledge them as the backbone of our healthcare system.

Image source: How ASHA workers are tackling vaccine hesitancy in rural Maharashtra Ground Report/ Newslaundry on YouTube

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About the Author

Kamalika

An undergraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Describes herself as an intersectional feminist and an avid reader when she's not busy read more...

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