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Widespread skepticism and misinformation hamper India’s vaccine rollout

As countries across the globe scramble to obtain COVID-19 vaccines, India has access to millions of doses with plans to vaccinate 300 million people by August. But vaccine hesitancy and skepticism are hampering efforts, with the nation reaching just 14 million people since the drive began more than a month ago. Special correspondent Neha Poonia reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As countries across the globe scramble for COVID-19 vaccines, India has access to millions of doses, with plans to vaccinate 300 million people by August.

    But vaccine hesitancy and skepticism are hampering efforts, with the country reaching just 14 million people since the drive began a month-and-a-half ago.

    From Delhi, special correspondent Neha Poonia reports.

  • Neha Poonia:

    India, home to 1.3 billion people, has been devastated by COVID-19, more than 11 million cases, 150,000 dead.

    The government says the actual outbreak might be much larger, reporting that one in five people, or nearly 218 million Indians, could have already had COVID-19. It's the world's second worst-hit country, behind the United States. In January, India launched the world's largest immunization drive, but not everyone thinks it's worth a shot.

  • Man:

    They should take whatever is available.

  • Neha Poonia:

    For the Dutta family in Delhi, most evenings are now spent convincing 59-year-old Sanjoy that he should get vaccinated.

    But Mr. Dutta is adamantly against it.

  • Sanjoy Dutta:

    The people surrounding me, they should get vaccinated. And so I will automatically get protected. And I will defer my next vaccination until at the last moment, when I am pretty sure that the reactions and all that will be minimal.

    Whatever benefits it will offer against the actual COVID virus vs. the side effect of the vaccine itself, that needs to be debated.

  • Neha Poonia:

    His son, Aditya, a COVID-19 doctor who was vaccinated on day one of India's rollout, has been trying to change his father's mind for weeks.

    Local media report 46 Indians have died after getting vaccinated. The government says the deaths aren't linked to the vaccine and that they are safe. Nevertheless, these reports have made some people doubt the shot's safety.

    It didn't help when last month the Duttas lost a close relative to COVID-19, they say after he got his first dose of a vaccine in the U.S..

    Aditya says his parents realize that some people can sometimes have adverse reactions to vaccines, but this is one of many factors making his father uncomfortable.

  • Dr. Aditya Dutta:

    Probably this is what contributes to my dad being hesitant. And I hope that, by the time his turn comes around, he will have changed his mind, or that I can force him somewhere.

  • Neha Poonia:

    But beyond living room discussions, vaccine hesitancy is a real problem across the country. Since India started administering the second vaccine dose two weeks ago, half of the front-line workers and nearly 40 percent of healthcare workers have not shown up.

    Despite not reaching all essential workers, India says, starting this week, it will target 270 million senior citizens and those at risk. This vaccination center in Delhi is ready to give 400 people shots every day, but authorities say, on most days, they see half that number.

    Front-line sanitation worker Sadhna says she too had to battle resistance at home to get her first shot. She's labored through the pandemic to keep Delhi's streets clean and is now eligible to get the vaccine free of cost.

    Poor urban neighborhoods like this one where Sadhna lives have been easy targets for the virus. Despite the very real threat of COVID-19, her family is unsure about the benefits of the vaccine. And Sadhna returns home to anxious questions.

  • Woman (through translator):

    How did it go?

  • Sadhna (through translator):

    It was fine, like any other injection. I feel OK so far.

  • Neha Poonia:

    A mother of two young boys, Sadhna says she spent days trying to convince her own mother that the vaccine is safe.

  • Sadhna (through translator):

    My mother didn't want me to get vaccinated at all. Many people had told her, people can die after getting the shot, or that I could get really sick and would have to be hospitalized.

  • Neha Poonia:

    Indians can't choose which vaccine they will get. This center is using Covishield, the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot developed in the U.K.. Bulk-produced by the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, there are millions of these tiny vials at India's disposal.

    Other centers have deployed Covaxin, a locally made vaccine which was given emergency approval without efficacy data. Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly defended this decision and, on Monday, chose to get vaccinated with Covaxin, instead of the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot.

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi (through translator):

    Scientists approved the vaccines after being sure of their impact. Don't pay heed to rumors and propaganda.

  • Neha Poonia:

    Experts claim the hasty approval and lack of transparency about vaccine efficacy is fueling hesitancy, and they say daily cases falling to less than 15,000 has also led to a false sense of complacency.

  • Dr. Srinath Reddy:

    There is a misconception that herd immunity has already arrived, and then not only the worst is behind us, but the threat is completely vanishing.

  • Neha Poonia:

    India has managed to reach just over 4 percent of the targeted 300 million Indians so far, with better turnout at rural centers than urban ones.

    Sanjay Bhaskar lives with 11 family members in a salt mining village on the outskirts of Mumbai. A sanitation worker in the police department, Sanjay says he's happy to be the first in his village to get the jab, even if it means traveling a great distance to get to the closest vaccination center.

  • Sanjay Bhaskar (through translator):

    Once I get the vaccine, I don't have to worry anymore. I can travel again safely. I won't have to accidentally worry about infecting my family. I want to go back to having a normal life.

  • Neha Poonia:

    While two-thirds of the population lives in rural India, it's in crowded cities where public health experts say the virus is still the biggest threat, where social distancing norms are no longer being strictly followed.

    And with cases surging again in some regions, experts are calling for a faster rollout of the vaccines.

    India is in a unique position because of its massive pharmaceutical industry. Before COVID-19, 60 percent of the world's vaccines were manufactured here. And now, not only has it been able to manufacture enough to meet its own requirements, but also export millions of doses to more than 20 countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

    The government says, as a responsible ally, India wants to help the world fight COVID-19, even as it fights to vaccinate its own population.

    Back in his village, Sanjay says the government should now let anyone who's willing to take the vaccine get a shot. He says he and his entire family will be more than willing to lead the way.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Neha Poonia in Delhi.

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