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Vol. XXX No. 22, March 16-31, 2021

COVID-19 vaccination: Citizens throng private hospitals while other distribution centres see lean footfalls

by our Special Correspondent

The Covid-19 vaccination drive is picking up speed even as Chennai sees a rise in the number of fresh cases. According to a list published by the Greater Chennai Corporation on its website, citizens can be vaccinated at what seems to be a wide network of urban community and primary health centres apart from government and private hospitals. According to ground reports, however, private hospitals seem to be bearing the brunt of patient footfalls. For instance, a March 9 piece in The Hindu says that 70,761 residents received the vaccination at private hospitals while 35,525 and 1,461 citizens received it at government hospitals and urban primary health centres respectively. Consequently, many report exorbitantly high waiting times at private hospitals even as other distribution centres wait for patients.

Madras Musings spoke to Usha*, an Alwarpet resident, about her experience. She had accompanied her 80+ year old mother to a well-known private hospital in her area to get vaccinated. “We reached the hospital at 10 am, since the counter was to open at that time. We found that there were already more than a hundred people waiting at the hospital – they had been there from 6am,” Usha said. The token number that she received when the hospital counter opened was 99; people reportedly had to wait for three hours on an average to get the jab.

There was also reportedly some confusion around the Co-WIN app, which is meant to smoothen the process of patient registration and scheduling. For instance, Usha found that the app was not functioning properly when she tried to use it. “It was simply not working,” she said. “But it didn’t seem to make a difference – I noticed many people complaining that they had to collect tokens and wait for their turn even though they had pre-registered on the app. It was such a long wait that quite a few senior citizens opted to leave and return to the hospital post lunch.” Usha also quickly added that the hospital did their best to take care of the crowd. “The staff were polite. Plastic chairs were provided and we were offered water to drink, too,” she said. The situation was reportedly better after the first few days, with waiting times reduced to an hour.

Usha’s experience is very different from others who visited the nearest government hospital or public health centre to get vaccinated. “I learned that some of my office colleagues got it done within ten or fifteen minutes,” said Usha. “I think many are reluctant to go to government hospitals or public health centres because they feel the vaccine quality may not be good enough.” Her surmise is probably right – people seem to place higher trust in private hospitals even though the vaccines available at every approved distribution centre are branded and of equal quality. In fact, Usha herself plans to take her mother to the same private hospital for the second dose of the vaccine despite her arduous experience. “My mother feels it’s safer to go there,” she explained.

Awareness of available vaccine distribution centres is, therefore, the need of the hour. It needs an exercise similar to the educational campaigns spearheaded by the administration during the peak of the pandemic – the importance of getting tested was impressed on the public through PSAs on digital media as well as on-ground efforts such as loudspeaker announcements delivered via local auto rickshaws. Fever camps were set up throughout the city to decentralize testing and make it easier for people to access care. Such a concerted campaign is key to battle misinformation and uncertainty around the vaccines and delivery points, too. Balanced footfalls across distribution centres will help reduce patient waiting times and vaccinate the city’s population faster – a crucial plus, given that cases are on the rise once again.

It can also be argued that easy access to vaccination may be one of the factors that help people decide whether they want the vaccine or not. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to calculate that more citizens will likely take the effort to get the shot if they knew the vaccine was available at their nearest centre, hassle-free. After all, with the lockdown lifted, many members of the public seem to be more relaxed about following precautions against the virus. “Many seem to be under the impression that the pandemic has passed,” pointed out Usha. Her maid, for instance, reported that many residents of her locality will opt for the vaccine only if it was mandated or rewarded. Maybe it is time for a home vaccination drive.

*Name changed on request.

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