Young health worker Masrat Farid traveled long distances through remote Himalayan grasslands in Indian administered Kashmir to vaccinate nomadic pastoralists as part of a campaign launched in June. Her challenge is not the dangerous terrain, she said, but persuading people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“Everywhere we go, it seems like rumors are coming earlier than us, and that makes our job difficult,” said Farid during a recent vaccination campaign in a high altitude meadow. She said most people are reluctant to get the vaccine because of the rumors.
And rumors abound.
Fueled by misinformation and mistrust, many locals, especially in remote areas, believe vaccines cause impotence, serious side effects and could even kill. Some just say they don’t need the vaccines because they are immune to the coronavirus.
Yet Kashmir has done better than the rest of India.
Dozens of health workers like Farid have fully immunized more than 9% of eligible people among the region’s 14 million people, compared with less than 5% for the nearly 1.4 billion people in the region. India. Almost 53 percent of people in the Himalayan region have had a first injection.
Mukhti Khan, an elderly woman, belongs to a nomadic family who have traveled for centuries between summer mountain pastures and winter pastures in the lowland plains, raising their goats, sheep and horses.
Recently, Mukhti expressed her gratitude when a medical team visited the village near the remote pasture where she and her extended family have camped with their cattle.
They can walk to the village but have to walk for hours to the nearest town for any medical emergency.
“It would have been a huge effort to go to town to get the vaccine,” she said as she received her first injection.
Besides reluctance, health workers also faced hostility.
“There are places where our colleagues have been attacked,” said Farid, who has vaccinated more than 800 people so far.
Some of the attacks were prompted by fears that videos taken by those responsible for the vaccination campaign could be used by authorities to encourage support for the Indian government, which most Kashmiris deeply dislike.
Many want independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan, which administers another part of Kashmir. The two countries claim all of the disputed territory.