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Meet India’s covid anti-vaxxers

Fears over efficacy, WhatsApp forwards and a blind belief in alternative medicine are dissuading some from getting the jab

Vaccine hesitancy may well be due in part to a lack of effective communication.
Vaccine hesitancy may well be due in part to a lack of effective communication. (Getty Images)

"I don’t know if you will believe it but CBD (cannabidiol) oil helped me fight covid-19,” Kumar Lalwani tells me over the phone from Panvel, Maharashtra. The cannabis activist “lives and breathes” the Ayurvedic way of living.

When the 34-year-old contracted covid-19 in September, he turned to the centuries-old system of natural healing without a second thought. The practice of Ayurveda has long been encouraged to slowly and steadily build a healthy body. But its efficacy, or that of cannabis, against a disease, let alone something as virulent and novel as covid-19, isn’t really backed by scientific data.

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During the initial six days, Lalwani stuck to a steady diet of water and sleep, for “the liquid will flush out all the toxins and eight-nine hours of shut-eye will help fight diseases of all kinds”. The next six were spent consuming five drops of CBD oil every eight hours, sometimes mixed with fruit juice. “By the 12th day, I was in perfect condition. Our body is made to consume only plant-based…natural products, not the synthetic stuff they (doctors) pump into you,” insists Lalwani, an entrepreneur-cum-photographer who quit a corporate career nine years ago to dedicate his life to promoting Ayurveda, yoga and meditation. “The medicine industry is only a few hundred years old. Ayurveda has been around for thousands. I don’t trust the medicine industry. I don’t understand why people are taking the covid-19 injections. How can they even make them (the vaccines) so fast?”

Lalwani is not the only Indian asking this question. At a time when one of the world’s biggest vaccination drives is underway in India, some are still unconvinced about the efficacy of the covid-19 vaccine, be it Covaxin, Covishield, Sputnik V or any other. Many question the fast-paced production of vaccines and the speedy clinical trials. Some of the elderly are fatalistic. Some trust WhatsApp forwards over the government’s message on the jab. Their reasons for distrust are based mostly on hearsay: One inevitably hears stories about how someone they knew contracted or even died from covid-19 after the first or both doses. The government’s endorsement of some Ayurvedic and homeopathic remedies has only given a fillip to such opinions. It tried to invest in homoeopathy cures too but so far only allopathy has shown the potential to fight the virus.

“The vaccine is the only effective tool against this notorious virus. People need to overcome their fears and anxieties and get vaccinated. Home remedies and Ayurveda won’t give any such protection,” says Vivek Nangia, principal director and head (pulmonology) at Max Hospital in Saket, Delhi. When it comes to the quick production of vaccines, doctors explain the roles of technological advancement, international cooperation and procedures being fast-tracked given the urgency of the situation. “People getting covid-19 (after the vaccine) could be because of underlying conditions,” explains Dr Nangia.

But all such arguments tend to fall on deaf ears.

“There are also people who think that since they have grown old they don’t need any vaccine,” rues Dr Nangia. “But I would request everyone to come forward.”

Urmila Rana is one of these people. The 67-year-old homemaker from Faridabad, Haryana, is the only one in her family yet to get the vaccine. “Sab bhagwan bharose hai… jeena marna woh hi decide karta hai. Aur iss umar main vaccine ki kya zaroorat hai? Hum bachche hain kya (It’s all in God’s hands. God decides who lives and who dies. And at this age, who needs a vaccine? Are we children)?

A 75-year-old farmer in Uttarakhand, a retired government employee, says: “Kya apko pata hai madamji uss injection main yeh log wohi kidda dalte hain (Do you know they put the covid-19 virus in the injection)?” He’s referring to a standard process followed in creating attenuated vaccines, which contain genetically weakened viruses so that they create a protective immune response.

“Such vaccines are commonly used in smallpox, chickenpox, measles. These viruses or bacteria are introduced simply to encourage the body to create antibodies and memory immune cells. They absolutely don’t cause any disease,” clarifies Manoj Goel, director (pulmonology), at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, Haryana.

Also read: The children left behind by covid-19

No amount of explanation will convince the Uttarakhand resident, though. After trying to persuade me not to get vaccinated by forwarding WhatsApp messages (“You will die after taking the vaccine,” one read), he offers the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who was a vocal opponent of Western medicine and believed that vaccination was “sacrilege”.

Vaccine hesitancy is not new in India. When the smallpox vaccine was introduced in the early 19th century, many resisted it, including Gandhi. He went on to write in a 1913 article in the Indian Opinion newspaper: “Vaccination seems to be a savage custom. It is one of the poisonous superstitions of our times the equal of which is not to be found even among so called primitive societies…. is a filthy remedy. Vaccine from an infected cow is introduced into our bodies; more, even vaccine from an infected human being is used…. I personally feel that in taking this vaccine we are guilty of a sacrilege.”

“When Gandhiji didn’t believe, why should we? It’s all in God’s hands,” the farmer insists, looking towards the sky during the video call. “My family also doesn’t understand my thinking.”

‘I trust WhatsApp’

On 23 May, a father of three in Ladakh received a news story link via WhatsApp. It was an article in which a supposed researcher claims that people who take the vaccine will die in two-three years. He immediately forwarded the message to his family group. Half an hour later, all the nine relatives in the group got on a video call and decided against vaccination. The article turned out to be fake but they are “too scared” to get vaccinated.

“I trust WhatsApp. And the article looks legitimate. The vaccine is just not safe,” the first recipient of the article, who doesn’t wish to be named, says. He asks the same question as other anti-vaxxers: “How were they able to make it so quickly? There’s still no cure for HIV, cancer. How come covid-19 vaccine is here so soon?”

Perhaps the problem here is a lack of effective communication. One of the biggest reasons for the quick development of covid-19 vaccines is that the entire world’s medical community worked together simultaneously using the same sources of information. “Plus approvals happened quickly. And you can’t really compare diseases. We should be thankful that this miracle happened. It’s quite unfortunate that in our country fake news travels faster than real,” says Dr Goel.

Pratishtha Kaura keeps reminding her retired father in Jalandhar, Punjab, of this. He refuses to get the vaccine because he “doesn’t trust the government”. “We have had so many arguments but he prefers to trust WhatsApp university,” says Kaura, 31. “He’s just too anxious about getting it, and focuses on home remedies.”

Cannabis activist Lalwani suggests the same thing. While explaining how most illnesses are related to the stomach, he offers the recipe for a spices-based kadha that can fight almost all problems—again, a home remedy not backed by data. “Medicines will make matters worse. Drink the kadha with warm water. You will never get any disease.”

The fact, however, remains that while yoga, meditation and a balanced diet can help build immunity, the only scientifically proven way so far to fight the covid-19 virus is the jab.

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