Is the jab the new black?

Opinion | Threatening the poor with punitive measures is no way to go about removing vaccine hesitancy

Updated - May 29, 2021 10:57 am IST

Published - May 28, 2021 01:06 pm IST

My mother-in-law is 80 and refuses to be vaccinated. Her argument? She is old and ready to “go”, so why waste a vaccine? When I mention this to people, responses range from ‘Oh you must try to persuade her’ to ‘Well, what can you do if she’s made up her mind.’ So far, nobody has suggested forcibly dragging her out for jabs.

A friend, in his 50s, also refuses the vaccine, saying he would rather wait for the very best vaccine to come along, with no side-effects whatsoever. Listening to him, some of us argue, some shrug.

Notice, however, how responses change when people discuss a cook, watchman or driver refusing the vaccine. ‘Cut her pay.’ ‘Threaten to sack him.’ ‘Refuse to let them in until they get jabbed.’ In fact, if it weren’t for the minor hitch of the country running massively short of vaccines, I am certain the impossibly self-righteous members of those residential welfare associations would have already issued directives banning entry to the unvaccinated.

The zeal to spread good health notwithstanding, there is an obvious classist and exclusionary underpinning to these conversations that’s hard to miss. After the first wave, the comfortable middle-classes had convinced themselves that Covid-19 was mainly confined to the unhygienic, undisciplined lower classes, and had bypassed them entirely because of their a) clean habits b) superior desi immunity c) the herbal concoctions they were gargling with and glugging down incessantly.

But then the second wave came, ravaging the country, showing no respect for wealth, social status or potion quotient. So now it appears that they are busy anointing the very act of being vaccinated as the new Calvin Klein.

It’s not so far-fetched when you remember that billionaire Bill Gates has used his global ‘health czar’ clout to insist that intellectual property rights be retained on coronavirus vaccines, which essentially means that instead of using life-saving drugs to save all of humanity, pharma companies want to hold on to patents for profits. This has partially led to the situation today where almost half the number of total vaccine shots have been used in the world’s 15 or 16 richest countries, leaving many others including India scrambling.

Even as this blatant vaccine apartheid is sought to be put to rights, the Indian government — which presides over a country where the number of people in poverty was estimated to be about 360 million in 2019 — chooses inexplicably to not roll out a universal and free vaccination drive, but opts for open market competition, leading to unseemly and public jostling between central and state governments, among state governments, and between private and public sector hospitals. This comes over and above a botched vaccination project that has created an acute shortage — in May, there were 20 million shots available for 600 million Indians aged 18 to 44.

So when Khushbu Sundar and Karthi Chidambaram, public figures from two ends of the political spectrum, advocate the linking of vaccination records to distribution of rations and direct cash transfers, it triggers alarm bells. Such recommendations can only come from positions of extreme privilege, where access to neither vaccines nor five-star Covid care is ever in any doubt. For the large number of Indians who live on the margins of survival, the least governments can do is not to jeopardise their meagre handouts in the guise of “health concerns”.

Sundar and Chidambaram’s suggestion is meant to counter vaccine hesitancy, but threatening citizens is no way to go about this. If there are fears about vaccines, the government’s own lack of transparency, its unconscionable public support of pseudo-science, its encouragement of a busy WhatsApp universe of quack forwards must take a lot of the blame. The way to counter vaccine hesitancy is by a massive awareness drive, not by intimidation, of the kind infamously endorsed by our elites during the mass sterilisation of the poor carried out during the Emergency.

Besides, it’s obvious that the poor are not the only ones refusing vaccines. Yet, as pointed out, nobody threatens upper-class doubters with drastic punitive measures. Clearly, any talk of withholding rations, bus passes or jobs is meant to create the sort of ecology where vaccination certificates become the next ticket for social credit. I cannot imagine anything worse.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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