View: A model for govt's vaccination strategy

Only a little over three million of the prioritised 300 million people in India were vaccinated in the first two weeks, well short of calculations, though still among the fastest in the world, and the rate improving somewhat compared to the inaugural days. While states like Odisha, Haryana and Karnataka have reported a higher turnout, others like Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have had lower footfall at vaccination centres.

The citizens’ response has not matched the eager wait, and vaccine hesitancy has been a fact that could sabotage the overall health plan. India’s vaccination programme has declared to follow its electoral exercise. The low turnout at vaccination centres needs to be addressed within the same framework. The Election Commission’s flagship programme, Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP), can be the model to follow to reach out to the citizen.

SVEEP was born out of the realisation of the sticky gaps in voter registration and turnout. India’s national voting stagnated at around 55-60% and that pointed to a democracy deficit despite correct, credible and regular elections. A systematic dialogue with citizens was necessary and was started in 2010. What followed was a non-stop series of general, as well as targeted, interventions based on scientific field analysis including that of low turnout polling stations. The result is there to see. Almost 200 million more citizens had registered as electors by 2019 general elections, compared to 2009.

Like voting, vaccine is voluntary. SVEEP’s goal is that all eligible citizens should register in the electoral roll and all those registered should vote. In the vaccination plan, all marked as priority should be on the database, and all on the database should take the jab on the appointed date(s). The SVEEP strategy has three dimensions: information, motivation, and facilitation, which perfectly apply to the world’s largest vaccination exercise.

It’s critical at this point to extend assurance and reassurance, continuously clear doubts and cement trust between the vaccine and the community. As many have already stated, there is an infodemic in hand to fight besides the pandemic. As part of SVEEP, a gamut of activities — street plays, human chains, road shows, cycle rallies, flash mobs, marathons, beach run, sand art, quizzes and postcard campaigns — have been engaging citizens around the central idea of electoral participation. Signature campaigns, voting pledges, voter festivals, selfie points and celebrity endorsement of voting, all play a part.

‘Vaccination icons’ — cricketers, sports stars, actors, singers, faith leaders — need to quickly emerge in larger numbers. They need to unleash their persuasive power over citizens using various communication channels, especially social media. A public figure sporting his or her jabbed arm can be an immense confidence booster. No one can deny the contribution of Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Do Boond Zindagi Ki’ for the Pulse Polio campaign.

Facilitation efforts in elections start with assured minimum facilities (AMF) like drinking water, toilets and ramps for the differently abled. Model polling stations have also come up to make polling extra-friendly. In the vaccination battle zone, glitches in the Co-WIN app and other procedural wrangles need to be eliminated, and the ‘call and contact’ arrangement has to be bolstered further. A hassle-free delivery of vaccination needs to exponentially cover as many alternative modes, extended sessions, flexible sites and timings. A ‘vaccine on call’ can be possible at some stage.

A dose of well-envisaged and systematic communication is like the vitamin doctors advise to be taken together with the antibiotic for optimisation of benefits. Quite rightly, the gravity of the vaccine programme is shifting resolutely towards vaccine communication.

GoI’s vaccination programme does have a backup communication strategy. States are getting engaged more than ever before in the task of beefing up vaccine awareness, confidence and participation. More needs to be done, better and quicker. This is not just the government’s or the medical community’s business, but of everyone: of corporates, media and civil society.

The Election Commission’s audacious mission ‘No Voter to be Left Behind’ needs to apply to the list of vaccination beneficiaries as well. A Systematic Vaccine Education and Vaccination Participation (SVEVP) initiative is urgently needed.

(The writer is former director general, Election Commission of India)

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