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Home >Opinion >Views >What India can learn from Charles Dickens about tackling vaccine hesitancy

British economist Joan Robinson once said: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true."

Nowhere has this statement been truer lately than the state of covid vaccination in India. Even while there is a massive vaccine shortage, there is also much hesitancy to take the vaccine, especially in small towns, semi-urban areas and rural areas.

The hesitancy is driven by many unscientific messages circulating on WhatsApp and other social media. Unscientific views of influencers like Baba Ramdev have added to this. Having said that, vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon, and has surfaced at various points in history.

In 1796, an English physician named Edward Jenner, building on the works of several others before him, came up with the smallpox vaccine. The invention of the smallpox vaccine also sparked off the anti-vaccination movement.

The theoretical foundations of this movement were based on three basic points. Steve Johnson explains these points in Extra Life – A Short History of Living Longer. As he writes: “First, there were various forms of spiritualism, homeopathy, and “natural healing" that loomed so large in late-Victorian society… Another group opposed vaccination because it distracted the health authorities from what they considered to be the prime culprit in the spread of disease: unsanitary living conditions… And then there were the political opponents, including Spencer, who saw in mandatory vaccination the ultimate encroachment of the state over individual liberty."

Jenner had observed that milkmaids seemed less likely than the average resident to contract smallpox. He hypothesized that this is because they had already contracted cowpox, a disease like smallpox but less virulent. They had contracted this disease from cows, given their work routine.

Using this insight, Jenner had scraped “some pus from the cowpox blisters of a milkmaid, and (inserted) the material into the arms of an eight-year-old boy." This is how the smallpox vaccine came into being and was adopted across the world, including India, where it had its share of naysayers.

As Chinmay Tumbe writes in The Age of Pandemics 1817-1920 – How They Shaped India and the World: “Hindus in India, who worship the cow, were hostile to the idea of using bovine material in vaccination and the arm-based injection method was also unpopular." The initial hostility decreased as people saw the positive effects of the vaccine.

The point here is that just because a vaccine is available doesn’t mean that people will go out and get vaccinated. This is one lesson we can clearly learn from the history of vaccination over the last two centuries.

In this scenario, communicating the right aspects of the covid vaccine becomes very important. And this is not just the government’s job. In fact, the writer Charles Dickens played a very important role in advocating the smallpox vaccine in the nineteenth century.

As Johnson writes: “Dickens published dozens of pro-vaccination essays — many of them written by him, in his popular weekly magazine, Household Words. He was an impassioned advocate for compulsory vaccination, and frequently lionized Edward Jenner as one of the great heroes of modern life."

As he wrote in 1857: “Few thoughts have given more material benefit to man… than that which arose in Dr Jenner’s mind."

There is something that both the Indian government and we Indians can learn from what Dickens did in his day.

Vaccine hesitancy needs to be tackled through proper communication. Hence, the government should be using leading influencers of the day to talk about why it is important to take the vaccine, to prevent the further spread of covid.

The right way to do this is to make short videos of 30 seconds to a minute, communicating the benefit of taking the vaccine, which can be shared easily on WhatsApp and other social media. In the past, the government has used film stars to promote its pulse polio programme. Similar steps need to be taken now as well.

In fact, if the government can get Ramdev to advocate the vaccine, that would be a real showstopper. He has a large following across India and his popularity needs to be tapped into. Of course, this is easier said than done, given that huge business interests are at stake here.

What needs to be avoided at all costs are text-heavy newspaper and magazine advertisements, which people are unlikely to read.

To conclude, communicating the benefits of taking the covid vaccine, unlike ensuring its supply, is low-hanging fruit, and something that can be executed quickly and at an extremely low cost.

Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money

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