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Indian police mark unvaccinated people with skulls to ‘raise awareness’ of vaccine drive

NEW DELHI: Residents in a central Indian state who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 receive badges marking them as “true patriots,” while those who have not been vaccinated are marked with pictures of skulls by local police who say they are raising vaccination awareness.

As India undergoes a devastating second wave of the pandemic, which has brought its official COVID-19 death toll to over 318,000, the country’s vaccination rate remains low, with only 4 percent of the 1.3 billion population having received at least one vaccine dose.

India’s vaccination campaign has been marred not only by vaccine shortages, but also hesitancy. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, police in Niwari have been deployed to the district’s 105 villages, with each officer responsible for convincing as many people as possible to protect themselves and others by receiving COVID-19 shots.

“People should be made aware of the need for vaccination and more and more people should get vaccinated. This is the idea of the drive,” Niwari district police chief Alok Kumar Singh told Arab News on Thursday.

“Rumors against vaccines (are common). So, we convince the people about the advantages of the vaccine. My target is to vaccinate the people as early as possible in the district,” he continued. “That will help in the unlocking process in the district and avoid a further increase in the (infection rate).”

He blamed vaccine hesitancy on the low levels of literacy in the north of Madhya Pradesh, where only 50 percent of the population can read and write, compared with 70 percent nationwide.

Police in Niwari have started random checks on the district’s roads and residents who fail to present vaccination certificates are made to wear posters with skulls on that read “Stay away from me, I have not been vaccinated.” They are also required to pledge that they will be vaccinated within two days.

Meanwhile, those who have been vaccinated are given colorful badges bearing the message “I am a true patriot because I have been vaccinated.”

Dr. Sarman Singh, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in the state capital of Bhopal, says that anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are a “matter of concern” in India, especially in rural areas.

“Vaccination is going on at a slow pace in Madhya Pradesh, and the speed (of the vaccination rollout) is a concern throughout the country,” he said. “In rural areas, people are not only non-cooperative but also violent. In rural areas the vaccination rate is very slow and it’s a challenge for us to expedite it.”

On a national level, it is not hesitancy but a shortage of vaccines that remains India’s biggest challenge, he said.

The country is currently relying on two “made in India” jabs — Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and the local Covaxin produced by Bharat Biotech.

Until April, the SII and Bharat Biotech had only been able to produce around 64 million doses a month. With the government having announced financial support for the companies, production will be doubled, but that will not start until August.

India is in talks with other international vaccine producers as the government’s stated goal is to vaccinate the entire population by the end of the year.

“The problem is that there are people willing to take vaccines, but the doses are not available, Dr. Singh said. “Forget about those who are not willing to come forward — they might be a miniscule population — but make the vaccine available for the overwhelming majority of the population who are willing to take it.”

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