He had recently joined a new job in Srinagar secretariat after quitting a software job in Bangalore. In third week of April, he happened to be in earshot of two senior officer hurried discussion. He was already into first week of Ramzan fasting but remained fully enthused at work, after all he had returned home with a secure position in government.
The officers had a serious issue at hand, people in different parts of the state were not turning up for vaccination. Besides hospitals and health centres, J&K government had put up mobile vans in front of mosques and were requesting those coming out after offering Namaz to get vaccinated. Some were curious to know what these vans were meant for but soon as they got to know they would turn around and leave.
Vaccination was simply not picking up. It was rumoured that a vaccine dose would actually end their Ramzan fasting, something which went against community’s religious beliefs. Even worse, another rumour was gaining ground that the vaccine causes infertility. The officers were thus discussing how to convince people, perhaps find a religious-spiritual leader of repute and acceptance who could dispel these doubts.
On hearing this young techie (name withheld on request) couldn’t contain himself and spoke out “Mufti Nasir Ul Islam (religious leader in the valley) is my uncle. I hope he would understand things in perspective. If you agree I can speak to him and he agrees you all can talk to him.”
The officers informed Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha about it. Mufti Nasir Ul Islam in 2018 had made a controversial statement that the Indian Muslims should demand a separate country. However, beating the pandemic became a bigger concern and the office of LG did not shy away from taking his help either. LG Sinha immediately started issuing instructions, drawing up a plan how to proceed on the matter. In last 10 months in office as LG, Sinha had acquired a reputation among officials that he meant business and worked with a zeal which this region had not seen in past decades.
Shopian and Ganderbal, districts otherwise considered to be hotbed of militancy was chosen as a test case. The idea was if a lead could come from Shopian and Ganderbal in South Kashmir, other people in other parts of the UT would be more inclined to follow the suit.
Mufti Nasir Ul Islam role became important here. He made a 1.30 minutes video clarifying to people that vaccines do not invalidate ‘fast’. It was circulated ‘informally’ through various WhatsApp groups through the UT. It worked very positively.
Added to that Saika Rasheed, a young Ladishah artist was requested to prepare a song on vaccines. Ladishah is a dying art (satire folk song) but still very popular among elderly people in the valley. This too was circulated on various WhatsApp groups. Local influencers and celebrities like Vibha Saraf and Mannat Noor (well known Kashmiri Singers) with a huge fan following in Kashmir valley were roped in. Radio jockeys played their part. Health officials, led by Dr Shahid were closely monitoring the progress in Kashmir valley on a daily basis.
The UT had lately strengthened Asha, ANM and Aanganwadi workers (all locals in respective villages). Their door to door knocking and convincing people for vaccination drives helped. Once they succeeded a bit “Vaccine on Wheels” (mobile vaccination) vans were brought in at their door steps at the earliest.
The multi-pronged strategy paid off well. Shopian became first district in the country with 100 percent first dose vaccination of 45 plus age group. Besides Shopian, Jammu, Ganderbal and Samba had achieved 100 45 plus first vaccination target. Other districts were closely following. Also districts like Kathua, Kulgam, Ramban, Resai, Udhampur and Sambha had 100 percent front line worker vaccination.
At another level, the state had developed its own app JKWIN to manage their internal rationalisation of high risk groups, comorbidities and vulnerable population.
These groups include shopkeepers, vendors (critically needed for opening the economy), journalists, lawyers, all kinds of people associated with tourism. “Vaccinated” sign was prominently displayed outside of shops where shopkeepers and vendors were vaccinated. This worked to inspire confidence among people visiting there, and also to motivate them to vaccinate.
What changed the game in J&K was this — instead of people going to health centres and waiting in queue, mobile vaccine vans were reaching to their doorstep.
A sense of confidence for UT administration sincerity in tackling pandemic also came through administration establishing five bed isolation centres with provision of oxygen cylinders in each of 4290 (over 85 percent Panchayats covered). Doorstep delivery of medicine for anyone testing positive or having such early systems helped contain the situation.
Without any hype, the region, which had over recent decades had made news for wrong reasons was making a difference, a positive one, that too in once in a century crisis.
As against the national average is 37 percent for first dose of vaccination for 45 plus age group, J&K average is 68 percent. Even among 18-44 age group J&K percentage is higher than the national average.
Compare and contrast this with a developed state like Maharashtra, which had reported maximum cases in Delta version of Covid spread. Till May 26 Maharashtra could provide first dose of vaccination to 40 percent of 45 plus age group. Kerala, which got a great deal of media hype for providing a model to contain spread of pandemic during the first phase last year could give first shot only to 49 percent of people in this age group. Telangana percentage is 30, Karnataka 46 percent, Delhi 48 percent, Andhra Pradesh 40 percent, percent Punjab 32 percent, West Bengal 29 percent, Madhya Pradesh 35 percent, Odisha 41 percent, and the list goes on with Jharkhand 23 percent, Tamil Nadu 18 at the bottom of it.
It’s time to talk of J&K vaccination model, just like we talked of Mumbai model for oxygen. More so, because for decades situation in J&K had been completely different and post formation of UT critics, political, social and academic had painted a completely gloomy picture. Also, to be noted that J&K unlike other states and UTs never reported shortage of oxygen in current wave of Covid mutated Delta virus spread. Other states and UTs may take a cue.