SRINAGAR, India — Young health worker Masrat Farid has trekked long distances through remote Himalayan meadows in Indian-controlled Kashmir to vaccinate nomadic herders in a campaign launched in June. Her challenge isn’t the treacherous terrain, she says, but persuading people to get inoculated against the coronavirus.
“Everywhere we go it seems rumors reach earlier than we do, and it makes our job difficult,” Farid said during a recent vaccination campaign in a high altitude meadow. She said most people are hesitant to get vaccinated because of the rumors.
And the rumors are plentiful.
Fueled by misinformation and mistrust, many residents, particularly in remote areas, believe that the vaccines cause impotence, serious side effects and could even kill. Some simply say they don’t need the shots because they’re immune to the coronavirus.
Still, Kashmir has done better than the rest of India. Scores of health workers like Farid have fully vaccinated over 9% of the eligible people among the region’s 14 million population, compared to less than 5% for India’s nearly 1.4 billion people. Almost 53% in Kashmir have had a first shot.
Mukhti Khan, an elderly woman, belongs to a family of nomads who have traveled for centuries between summer mountain pastures and winter grazing grounds in the lowland plains, herding their goats, sheep and horses.
On a recent day, Mukhti expressed her gratitude as a medical team visited the village near the remote pasture where she and her extended family have camped with their cattle. They can travel on foot to the village but must walk for hours to the nearest town for any medical emergency.
“It would have been quite an effort to go to the town for vaccinations,” she said as she received her first shot.
Apart from the hesitancy, the health workers have faced hostility as well.
“There are places where our colleagues have been attacked,” said Farid, who has vaccinated over 800 people so far.
Some of the attacks were fueled by fears that videos taken by officials of the vaccination campaign could be used by authorities to encourage support for the Indian government, which many Kashmiris deeply dislike. Most want independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan, which controls another part of Kashmir. Both countries claim the entire disputed territory.