Why Dharavi’s Covid vaccination facility found few takers on the first day

The goal was to vaccinate 1,000 residents of Mumbai’s mega slum, but less than 70 turned up. What went wrong?

ByDiksha Munjal
Why Dharavi’s Covid vaccination facility found few takers on the first day
The vaccination centre in Dharavi.
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Mumbai has emerged a hotspot of the surge in coronavirus infections in the country, reporting 3,775 new cases on March 21, the most in a day since the pandemic began early last year. In response, the city’s administration has ramped up the vaccination drive.

On Monday, they launched the first Covid vaccination centre in Dharavi, where 6.5 lakh people live crammed together in about 2.2 sq kms. When the first coronavirus infections were detected in the mega slum back in April last year, there was alarm as the highly dense population heightened the possibility of a rapid outbreak. That did not happen, thanks mainly to an effective screening and community engagement model adopted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which even earned praise from the World Health Organization. By the latter half of the year, new infections had come down to single digits, from an average of 43 daily cases in May.

Now, though, as new cases surge, the fears of an outbreak have returned. The Indian Express reported this week, quoting civic officials, that Dharavi has recorded 272 new infections so far in March, 62 percent more than in the whole of February. Hence the urgency to vaccinate the vulnerable population of the slum, by some estimates Asia’s largest. Only the first day of the vaccination drive didn’t go as planned.

Since vaccination was opened to elderly citizens and those over 45 with comorbidities, vaccination centres across Mumbai have been witnessing long queues, even chaos. Not so the centre in Dharavi, set up in a health centre at Shahu Nagar by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The health authorities planned to vaccinate at least 1,000 residents the first day, but only 64 turned up.

People waiting to be vaccinated at the Dharavi centre.

People waiting to be vaccinated at the Dharavi centre.

The main reason for the lacklustre response, Shubhangi Patil said, was the lack of an “awareness drive”. A social worker with the NGO Family Welfare Agency, she brought two elderly persons to the centre. “We are going door to door, making people aware of the benefits of vaccination and clearing their reservations. We do whatever we can as an NGO but mass awareness drives and public service announcements have to come from the government,” Patil added.

Dr Afreen Khan, the supervisor at the centre, admitted that the lack of awareness was a possible reason for the low footfall. She added, though, that the BMC had begun making announcements about the vaccination drive on Sunday.

If it had, few people in and around Shahu Nagar seemed to have heard.

Mohammad Fareed Khan, 58, lives and runs a meat shop right across from the vaccination centre, but was clueless about it. “I don’t have any disease but if the government spreads the word those who feel like getting vaccinated will go to the centre,” he said, adding that he hadn’t heard any announcement about the vaccination drive.

In the crushingly narrow lanes of Shahu Nagar and neighbouring Transit Camp that stinks of uncollected garbage, shopkeepers, street vendors and residents living in tiny hutments almost glued to each other spoke about the pandemic like it was a faint memory. Perhaps because they have little choice. “Where is corona? Can you see it? Life doesn’t stop for people like us, Covid or not,” said Khan. “The talk of new cases in Dharavi, it isn’t that big a deal. If you go to the poor they will instead complain of joblessness caused by the pandemic. Police are troubling people, they stand on every corner and nab anyone for an instant payment of Rs 200, for not wearing a mask.”

A lane in Transit Camp, Dharavi.

A lane in Transit Camp, Dharavi.

In another lane near the vaccination centre, Manjari, 55, a mother of two and grandmother of one, sat on her porch shelling peas. Her 27-year-old son who is currently unemployed sat behind a curtain looking into his phone. Did she know a vaccination centre had been set up across the road?

“No, no one has come to say any such thing,” she said, evidently surprised. “Last year they would come regularly to check our temperature. They would point that thermometer to the forehead and ask if anyone in the family was sick.” She was referring to the BMC’s screening drives at the peak of the pandemic in April and May.

The lane leading up to Manjari’s home.

The lane leading up to Manjari’s home.

‘I was looking forward to this’

Considering the slow response on the first day, it might take some effort for the BMC to make a success of the vaccination drive in Dharavi. Nearly 1.5 lakh of the slum dwellers are aged 60 and above, and the BMC plans to vaccinate them all to begin with, along with frontline workers and people aged over 45 years with comorbidities, according to assistant municipal commissioner Kiran Dighavkar. They will all be given Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

“The centre will have both digital registration through the CoWIN portal and walk-in registration. But we are encouraging walk-in registrations, people can just come and we will enable them to register right there,” Dighavkar added. “We aim to vaccinate at least 1,000 people per day.”

The target wasn’t achieved the first day but the few people who received the shot couldn’t have got it sooner. “My wife and I would be scared to go around, now we won’t be,” Yesuvadian Nadar, 77, said as he waited in the screening area while nurses monitored the vaccinated people for adverse reactions.

Nadar, a retired army man, who lives in Dharavi’s RP Nagar, said he was alerted to the opening of the vaccination centre by a newspaper article.

Sejal Tambe, a primary school teacher in Matunga Labour Camp, learned about it from a local public health worker. “I was looking forward to this. In fact, today I took leave from school to come here,” she said.

Pictures by Diksha Munjal.

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