Bhibhaji Vitthal Pokharkar, 64, a farmer in Narayangaon village in rural Pune, is anxiously waiting of his second dose of the Covishield vaccine.
More than six weeks have since elapsed since he took his first dose on March 20. The acute vaccine crunch across Maharashtra has especially aggravated the pandemic crisis in Pune, the worst-hit district in India with nearly 1 lakh active cases and nearly 14,000 deaths, which has been witnessing a daily surge of 10,000 cases and 150 fatalities.
The rising cases and deaths in rural areas have alarmed Mr. Pokharkar.
“My wife, Savita, too, has to take her second dose. But there are no vaccines available. Worse, people from urban areas are coming here to take their jabs…this must stop,” he says.
Each day, he enquires at the vaccination centre in Narayangaon in Junnar taluk, only to be disappointed. He is one of the many senior citizens in Maharashtra’s rural hinterland to be thus frustrated.
An acute crunch in the urban pockets of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad has prompted a scramble among residents there, some of whom are travelling hundreds of kilometres to get their doses from rural areas. This has stirred anger among rural folk who are also finding it tough to access vaccines.
Pune Zilla Parishad Chief Executive Officer Ayush Prasad explains: “Things were fine when people from the rural parts were getting their first doses, which were mainly through walk-ins. At the time, rural representatives were proactive in ensuring that citizens here, especially the elderly, received their jabs on time. Online registration has, in fact, made matters worse, especially vaccination for the 18-44 years age group. As a result, if people in the urban parts are not getting slots there, they are booking or rushing to get their doses here.”
Pune Zilla Parishad member Ashatai Buchke, who has been fighting to get vials for the rural population, has warned that she will not allow any urban residents to come and get doses which “rightfully belonged” to the rural residents.
“Given that vaccines are anyway in short supply, we will not tolerate any more cars from Pune or Pimpri-Chinchwad in our villages…besides senior citizens, 26 persons in the age group 18-44 years have succumbed to the virus in my area…just because authorities cannot manage the vaccine situation in the urban pockets, people from there cannot come to Junnar taluk,” Ms. Buchke said.
She informed that she barely had 1,900 doses of Covishield and 729 doses of Covaxin for those above 45 years currently.
“This stock will get over soon and we will be in dire straits…Junnar is the most far-flung of taluks in Pune and we are already reeling under an acute shortage of oxygen, critical care beds and Remdesivir,” Ms. Buchke said, remarking that she had personally written to Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope regarding the vaccine crunch in rural areas.
In Bedag village in Sangli district, which has been witnessing a daily surge of 1,200 cases, retired lawyer K.D. Shinde (66) has been struggling to get his second Covishield dose as the vaccine supply in the district has all but stopped.
“It is more than seven weeks since I took my first Covishield dose. I have been enquiring regularly since my date is due, but there does not seem to be a single vial anywhere…if we do not get vaccines soon, what will be the point of having taken the first dose?” he asked.
Ruing the sheer lack of preparation on part of both the district and State administration, Mr. Shinde said that till date, just 66,000 among senior citizens had finished their second dose.
“Of the district’s population of 35 lakh, only 5.72 lakh have been vaccinated till date…this tardy pace of vaccination does not bode well for the citizens,” Mr. Shinde said.