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Tears and fears at the huge push for the coronavirus vaccine in India

Tears and fears at the huge push for the coronavirus vaccine in India

India's massive coronavirus vaccination campaign is late, with a third of recipients skipping appointments due to safety fears, technical failures and the belief that the pandemic is ending.

After a week, India has vaccinated 1.4 million people, or 200,000 people per day. It had initially expected to process 300,000 per day before accelerating deployment and inoculating 300 million in July.

At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida near New Delhi, 17-year-old pharmacy student Khushi Dhingra hugged a friend and cried while she waited to receive her injection.

"I'm very scared. I hate needles and I worry about side effects," she told AFP.

"My dad is also very concerned. He calls me over and over to make sure I'm okay."

"There are about 80 students in my group, but only two have chosen to get vaccinated," said nursing student Sakshi Sharma, 21, from Greater Noida.

"My friends say there will be side effects, that you can even have paralysis."

India is using two shots to boost her.

One is Covishield, a locally produced version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been approved and used safely in several other countries after completing phase 3 human trials.

The other, Covaxin, was developed locally by Bharat Biotech and has yet to complete Phase 3 testing, although the government has insisted it is "110 percent safe."

- WhatsApp concerns -

Side effects are a common fear, with some cases of serious reactions, and even deaths, being widely reported in the media and circulating wildly on Facebook and WhatsApp.

In the eastern state of West Bengal, health chief Ajoy Chakraborty said turnout was just under 70 percent, calling it "not encouraging."

"We could have achieved our goal if some had not backed off after watching television reports of adverse effects after vaccination," Chakraborty said.

But Alisha Khan, 20, a nursing student in Greater Noida, said people were also hesitant because of Covaxin's "hasty" approval.

"Why are they trying to experiment with us? First, they should have completed the tests properly," Khan told AFP. "I'm shaking with fear."

- Complacency of the coronavirus -

Dhingra, in the end, did not receive a vaccine after staff found out that she was under 18 years old. However, she had received a text message telling her to come for the vaccination of the IT system that managed the gigantic process.

The government says this and other technical problems are being solved.

One was that if one person did not show up for vaccination, another person could not simply take their place.

This led to the unfinished vaccine vials, which contain a certain number of doses and must be used that day, being thrown away.

Also hurting the effort is complacency with the number of coronavirus infections and deaths in India falling sharply in recent months.

"At first, when there was a closure, (the villagers) were very scared by the coronavirus," said Asha Chauhan, 30, who is part of vaccination efforts in rural areas.

"Now that fear is gone because cases have dropped. They feel like the crown has left our country now," he said. "They fear dying if they get vaccinated."

- Selfie areas -

Many of the 30 million people who must receive injections in the first phase are healthcare workers who have seen the deadly pandemic up close; however, many of them doubt.

This needs to be addressed before the vaccine spreads to the general Indian population, experts say, where skepticism about the vaccine is already rife.

"They must launch awareness campaigns in every corner of the country," Anita Yadav, 25, an auxiliary nurse and midwife, told AFP.

The government has tried to boost participation, including by adapting a classic Bollywood song with lyrics telling people not to believe false rumors.

A Delhi hospital has set up a "selfie zone" for satisfied recipients to take photos. And vaccination centers have started playing soft, relaxing music in waiting rooms.

"All the best doctors and physicians have taken the hit and we are pushing the videos of them taking the injection to circulate and it has helped to overcome any doubts," said Dr. Qazi Haroon, Immunization Officer in Kashmir.

"Now (the vaccines) are recovering satisfactorily ... Yesterday (Friday), we met 80 to 90 percent of our targets at vaccination stations."

Shahid Jameel, a virologist and academic, said that a country like India was destined to have initial problems.

"Once the front-line workers take the blow," Jameel told AFP, "confidence will slowly increase."

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