Sometime in 1806, the queens of Wadiyar Dynasty of Mysore posed for painter Thomas Hickey, for the painting called ‘Three Royal Princesses of Mysore’.
While the painting is a fine example of typical colonial art, what is more interesting is that it is part of a campaign by the Wadiyars to promote small pox vaccination. Imagine a time when there was no media, when creating a behaviour change campaign was almost impossible, when the fear of vaccine must have been a thousand times higher than the safety of vaccine.
India never stepped back from that time ever. It has aggressively gone about vaccinating its population for a variety of ailments. India’s polio eradication campaign is a case study globally where every house was covered on the chosen days. The pulse polio campaign has eradicated the dreaded disease. Polio is not the only one that India has eradicated, it has done away with more.
Then how have we, as a nation, not launched a campaign for COVID vaccination? We cannot assume that vaccine hesitancy is over, as India has a long history of inoculation and every citizen is administered basic immunisations, yet the authorities assumed that Indians will have no issues to queue up for the jab.
The issue of hesitancy is complex for COVID. At the lower level of income strata, where the mass of the country is, there is a lot of misinformation. People fear that the vaccine will infect them, make them weak and impotent, and even kill them. At the upper end of the market, where a more literate and erudite audience exists, they wonder about efficacy, trial data, technology that is being used and even the speed at which the pharma companies created and launched the vaccines. The new differential pricing has added to the hesitancy and denial.
With the virus ravaging the country, the need of the hour is a campaign that brings vaccine availability and readiness to take the vaccine on one plank. While a few brands have launched campaigns on taking the vaccine, those campaigns are far and few. India needs a campaign that reduces fear and increases acceptance. The campaign needs to make people walk out of homes and actively demand to be vaccinated. In many parts of the world, brands are rewarding those who take the shot. Vaccine rewards is a new phenomenon and needs to be exploited to the hilt. There is no better way to create a sense of mass movement, than by rewarding those who did take the leap. This has to be combined with strong grass root effort to dispel the misinformation. The rural and semi-urban class will decide the fate of our vaccination drive.
Like the princesses of Mysore, India started the vaccine drive with pictures of the Prime Minister taking the shot. The princesses of Mysore did not have access to power of media; the Government of the day has that power. They need to exercise it.
(The author is Co-founder and CSO, Bang in the Middle)