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India Has COVID-19 Vaccine Doses. But Will The Country's Population Take Them?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To India now, where the government has launched what it calls the biggest coronavirus vaccine drive in the world. By midsummer, it aims to vaccinate about a quarter of its nearly 1.4 billion people. NPR's media correspondent Lauren Frayer traveled to a rural vaccination center north of Mumbai to see how the campaign's going.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In a dusty market town in western India, Ramesh Solanki is raking trash in flip-flops. He's a sanitation worker, soon eligible as a frontline worker to get the coronavirus vaccine.

RAMESH SOLANKI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: It's a great thing, he says. He's just waiting for an appointment...

Oh, thank you. Hand sanitizer at the door here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Take the temperature also.

FRAYER: ...At the Palghar Rural Hospital. Most Indians live in rural areas, and if they get medical care, it's at government hospitals like this one, a mildewed but tidy concrete building behind a rusted gate. Inside, vaccinations are underway.

AMIT SONAWANE: My son had COVID, 2-year-old, because my brother also got infected.

FRAYER: Health worker Amit Sonawane is getting his shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYRINGE UNWRAPPING)

FRAYER: Unwrapping a syringe.

SONAWANE: Inject it.

FRAYER: Done.

SONAWANE: Done.

FRAYER: I think - I can't see the smile behind your mask, but I think there's a smile. You feel relieved?

SONAWANE: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He'll celebrate tonight with his family, he says. There are occasional hiccups. The government's vaccine app is buggy and sometimes the electricity goes out, says Dr. Umesh Dumpalwar, who's in charge here.

UMESH DUMPALWAR: Power cuts, yeah, network issues are there.

FRAYER: But he says vaccinating frontline workers is the easy part. When regular Indians become eligible...

DUMPALWAR: That - there will be a challenge. After one month or two months, whenever we start for the common man, to the common publics...

FRAYER: The common man, he says, especially in rural areas like this, is more vulnerable to rumors, disinformation and fear. Around the corner from the hospital, women squat in the road hawking vegetables. One of them, Kunta Dubra, says she doesn't know her own age. She never went to school.

KUNTA DUBRA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Why would I take medicine if I'm not sick, she says, when I ask if she'll take the vaccine. India is trying to pick up the pace. Its goal is to inject a million and a half people per day. Billboards tout the vaccine. And whenever you make a phone call here, instead of a ringtone...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: You hear a government message saying, don't believe rumors, do take the vaccine. But some folks like Dubra, the vegetable seller, don't have phones. The Palghar Rural Hospital serves tribal villages nestled in palm groves and fishing colonies on the Arabian Sea coast, where people wash dishes in a communal well...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

FRAYER: ...And talk about how they've been untouched by COVID-19.

Have people in your family gotten sick?

AKASH CHAWAN: No. No one. No one. Not a single one.

FRAYER: Akash Chawan left college in Mumbai to stay with relatives here. Even before vaccinations began, India's coronavirus caseload plummeted. The result is that some people think the worst is over, and that maybe they don't need to bother with the vaccine.

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: On a cement dock, fishermen's wives shuck oysters and commiserate about the economy - a lockdown followed by a deep recession. If the vaccine means things will go back to normal, then sure, I'll take it, says one woman, Lakshmi Prakash Tandel.

LAKSHMI PRAKASH TANDEL: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: But she's heard mixed things. She says she's unsure what to do. One of the vaccines India is using was approved with incomplete data while still in clinical trials. A recent poll shows a majority of Indians want more time to decide. Back at the rural hospital, chairs are lined up, socially distanced, but many are empty...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Waiting patient, waiting beneficiaries.

FRAYER: A hundred and fifteen people had vaccination appointments today, but only 55 showed up by late afternoon. Vaccine supplies are not a problem here. India is the biggest vaccine maker in the world. Its factories are churning out more than a hundred million doses a month. The Indian government's aim now is to get people to take them.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Palghar, Maharashtra, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.