Sanitation worker Ramesh Solanki cleans the streets outside Palghar railway station. "I get up every morning at 5:30, and I see news about the vaccines on TV," he says. "I don't know about any controversies. I just know I'm proud to be part of this." Photo: Viraj Nayar for NPR
Outside a train station in rural India, wiry men in flip-flops rake rotting coconuts and soiled plastic wrappers onto burlap tarps, then sling them into the back of an idling truck. They start toiling at dawn, sometimes scooping trash with bare hands, for a monthly full-time wage of about $95
But there’s at least one thing these men say they feel lucky about: As sanitation workers, they’re among the first Indians eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine.
Last month, India launched what Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls the biggest vaccination drive in the world. It aims to inoculate 300 million by mid-summer, though it’ll take at least two more years to vaccinate all of the nearly 1.4 billion people in India.
The first phase, now underway, covers all health and frontline workers – about 30 million people – including doctors, nurses, police officers and trash collectors.
“I never felt scared of the virus,” says sanitation worker Ramesh Solanki, who wears a tidy teal uniform with orange trim and a Hindu talisman on a string around his neck. “I’ve been out working the whole time, even during the lockdown. The government is making decisions with our well-being in mind.”
India is big on public health messaging. This sign outside a hospital emphasizes the need to keep physically distant from others to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Photo: Viraj Nayar for NPR
Solanki, 45, is just waiting for his supervisor to tell him when his vaccine appointment will be. He’ll get his shots without hesitation. “I feel proud,” he says.
India has the second-highest coronavirus caseload in the world, behind the United States, though daily case counts have plummeted in recent months. Many frontline workers have been around COVID-19, especially the health workers among them, and have seen what it’s wrought. Last May, a video went viral of dead bodies laid out alongside live patients in a Mumbai COVID ward.
In Delhi, hospitals were so overwhelmed, there were reports of people dying in parking lots while waiting to be admitted.In this first stage of the vaccine campaign, all inoculations are being administered at government hospitals. They’re voluntary and free of charge. Later, possibly this summer, Indians may be able to pay for vaccines at private hospitals and clinics. Eventually, the government plans to dispatch mobile vaccination teams to the country’s most remote corners.
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How Do You Vaccine 300 Million People By August? Ask India