Tribal women carry bundles of twigs and leaves near Shantiniketan, 150 km northwest of Calcutta. Photo: Reuters
Neither scepticism of nor misinformation about vaccines is new – but in the rush to ensure everyone is vaccinated, and the attendant panoply of issues, we should also ensure tribal communities around India have access to vaccines and that they agree to take them.
Despite their relative isolation, members of many tribal groups around India have tested positive for COVID-19.
Tribal people account for around 370 million people in 70 countries around the world. In India, they make up 8.2% of the population. According to the Anthropological Survey of India, India is home to 461 communities, of which 174 are identified as sub-groups, in 212 tribes.
Due to nutritional and health discrepancies among these communities, their members often distrust government policies, and this in turn could hamper the vaccination drive. Their members are also often unaware of the importance of vaccination. The work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has found that one’s social practices and dispositions, linked in turn to social capital, acceptance in one’s social milieu and consumption patterns, determine their attitude towards vaccination.
Infectious diseases, but especially COVID-19, can be deadlier among tribal people because they live in groups and migrate in search of livelihoods. This reality is compounded by the fact that many of them are illiterate, have poor access to maternal and child care, are malnourished and often lack access to proper sanitation.
Tribal people have been generally found to be reluctant to get themselves vaccinated because of how their communities have been affected by colonialism, and because of their isolation from the mainstream.
In Tamil Nadu and Telangana, officials and activists have taken measures to spread awareness among tribal communities of the need to get vaccinated. Jharkhand has translated awareness messaging to tribal dialects. Karnataka has erected outreach centres to vaccinate people living in tribal hamlets. In Odisha, the government and village forest protection committees resources have together forest produce that could serve as remedies to ill people.
In Maharashtra, on the other hand, the turnout for vaccines in tribal and rural areas has been poor, likely because the registration portal, Co-WIN, presents a significant technological barrier. It requires technological literacy, an internet-capable device and network connectivity to use.
Aside from state efforts (or lack of them), many tribal communities have also withdrawn from the vaccination campaign for reasons that have turned away many others as well – such as misinformation about vaccine-induced disease.
Overall, vaccination coverage has been moderate to poor in India’s rural and tribal hinterlands.
Given these issues, governments, civil society and journalists should help in the efforts to shield tribal people from COVID-19, improve their physical access to infrastructure and interpersonal communication, and intensify awareness drives.
For these communities to survive and develop, their members need to be sensitised about the significance of vaccination as a public health measure. Those engaged in these efforts can enlist the help of tribal leaders – as voices of authority that belong to the same community as those the messages target, these people are likely to have a greater impact.
Nupur Pattanaik teaches sociology at the Central University of Odisha.