Bollywood Fights Covid: Shabana Azmi boosts vaccination drives in rural India
Photo: Viral Bhayani

While in cities and smaller towns following a virulent second wave of Covid infections many are queuing up for vaccines now, in the interiors, people still jump into the river rather than get vaccinated. They believe that rather than boost immunity and reduce fatality, these jabs will result in sterility and increase mortality numbers. Shabana Azmi who has had to fight such superstitious beliefs even in Mijwan, her own village in Uttar Pradesh, concedes that in rural areas, lack of information and misinformation often results in disempowerment. “The administration is battling resistance to both testing and vaccination. In the absence of a strong health care system, people in villages tend to be naturally suspicious when the government launches any kind of mission,” points out the actor-activist who was distributing oxygen concentrators in the state earlier.

Informing her that UP had plenty of oxygen in stock to deal with rising Covid cases, the District Magistrate of Azamgarh, along with the Medical Superintendent of Phulpur and the Community Health Worker in Mijwan, requested her to appeal to the people to take vaccines, hoping they would listen to her. The government has roped in Accredited Social Health Activists (Asha) and Anganwadi workers for door-to-door surveys to pinpoint those in need of testing and urging others to register for vaccination on the CoWin app. “But these workers are often untrained and rather than ally fears, they add to them with bald queries about whether someone has fever. Knowing that a “yes” can lead to institutionalised quarantine in poorly maintained government schools, villagers often lie,” she sighs.

With husband writer-composer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, Shabana had earlier travelled to many such remote villages in the couple’s home state as part of UNICEF’s polio vaccine drive. “We had spoken to village leaders to urge people to ensure that their children took the two drops that could save them from the crippling disease,” she informs, adding that the Mijwan Welfare Society used the trust they had built to kickstart a Covid relief programme in Azamgarh, Jaunpur and Balia, which aimed at getting more people vaccinated by helping them with documentation and on-line registration. “Such NGOs are the only ones villagers trust. And it takes a lot of effort to earn that trust.”

With the Centre opening up vaccination in the 18-45 age group, Shabana is adding impetus to the programme with specially-shot videos made with the idea of boosting mass confidence. “I tell people through these videos that I have taken my two jabs and have not suffered any adverse reactions, so they should do the same,” she shares, pointing out that it’s easier to build confidence in youngsters who they are optimistic will then bring their parents and elders to vaccination centres.

Meanwhile, the Mijwan Welfare Society’s relief programme has extended to other districts in UP, including Mirzapur, Gazipur, Chandauli, Ambedkar Nagar, and even Buxar in Bihar. “We have had 80 per cent success in eight districts, which is admirable given the circumstances. We are going about this independently but through government channels. So, fortunately, the villagers are looking at us as allies,” she says with a sigh of relief, adding that the ‘rozgar dhabas’ or community information centres set up last year to help returning migrants and daily wage owners with employment opportunities, documentation, government schemes and health initiatives are now being tapped to disseminate correct information.

Shabana and Javed got into relief work pretty quickly. Last year, during the lockdown, she donated to the Cine & TV Artistes’ Association (CINTAA) and distributed 4000-plus meals in slums. Javed, as part of the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS), helped 3,700 members with rations and cash donations. He also joined hands with singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan and music label Saregama to make direct cash transfers of Rs 2,500 per week to members of the music frat not affiliated to the IPRS. This year too the IPRS has come to the aid of less fortunate members with cash transfers directly into their bank accounts.

Last year, the Mijwan Welfare Society distributed dry food grain and hygiene kits to 50,000 plus people in 152 villages in 26 districts of UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and Delhi. “The knee jerk reaction in a crisis is to distribute food. But we have since moved from relief to rehabilitation and now to dissemination of information to assist with the vaccination drive. Our people have been going door-to-door spreading awareness and educating people. It’s a risky job and around five per cent of them have contracted Covid but the efforts continue even as every day brings forward a new challenge,” the actor confides.

One such challenge is online education. Even with parents in Mijwan offering their lone smartphone to their daughters so they can continue with their classes, connectivity issues make learning difficult. “But the teachers refused to give up, asking children facing difficulties to come to school and giving them lessons for a second time with social distancing and proper SOPs in place. It’s been a huge learning for all of us,” says Shabana.

Some of these girls work at the Mijwan Welfare Centre. The pandemic has kept them in their homes but they continue to work tirelessly to make three-layered cotton masks, going up from 7,000 a week to lakhs. “Earlier they were plain and simple, now they are beautifully embroidered, designer masks. With the errant virus continuing to wreak havoc, we will have to keep them on and look to vaccinating the whole country before we can put this pandemic behind us,” she signs off.

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