Misinformation spreads like a forest fire in this digital age. As a result, even developed countries in the West struggle with Anti-Vaxx sentiments. What do self-proclaimed ‘autism experts’ in the USA and ‘vaccine skeptics’ in Europe have in common with misguided rural south-east Asians? They believe immunization efforts do more harm than good, and they’re very vocal about their beliefs.
In early October, a vaccine hesitancy survey conducted by LocalCircles found that around 7.04 crore Indians were hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 50% of these people came from rural areas. Without a counter-narrative, misinformation quickly takes root, and beliefs once formed are hard to shake.
Vaccine hesitancy is dangerous to all of us, not just in the context of the ongoing pandemic but also considering the incidence rates of other communicable diseases. Of the total disease burden in India, more than 50% is due to communicable diseases. Although the number varies wildly by state, this avoidable burden is substantial.
India’s vaccination drive may be the largest globally, but it lacks a crucial element – a mechanism to fight the ‘infodemic’ around preventable diseases and immunization. What use is a functional vaccination site if no one shows up to get vaccinated?
This is where the role of a community mobilizer comes in.
Who is a Community Mobilizer?
Community mobilizers are a group of individuals who put aside their differences to gather on equal footing and promote a participative decision-making process.
Mobilization is a process in which communities, or other organizations, stimulate action. This action is planned, executed, and evaluated on a participatory and sustained basis by a community. It aims for the overall improvement of health, hygiene, and education. This eventually improves the overall standard of living in the community.
This initiates discourse among community members to identify what the problems are and decide how to solve them. It gives an outlet for everyone to engage in choices that impact their lives. Community mobilizers are needed to fight against false information and stigma. They help in myth-busting in their local communities.
‘Community mobilization’ is a word that is widely used in the development sector. It is an endeavor to educate, dispel myths, and ignorance about sustainable developmental activities. It’s been demonstrated to be a beneficial and efficient approach with many applications in dealing with fundamental issues such as health and hygiene, population, pollution, and gender prejudice.
Some well-known community mobilizers are ASHA workers, State Rural Livelihood Mission Volunteers, Mahila Aarogya Samiti workers, health functionaries, teachers, etc. For children and women especially, an Anganwadi acts as a rural child care centre. This cadre of influencers, developed to raise awareness about health/wellness and the spread of communicable diseases, is being severely under-utilized. The right time to utilize them is now since the second wave is behind us, and we have a buffer time before the next wave hits. They need behavioral training to improve the quality of their conversations in the community and functional training to make them part of disease triaging and unvaccinated citizen identification protocols.
Grassroots Level Progress
A community will quickly adopt vital healthcare initiatives if leaders, citizens, and youth are fully engaged in mobilizing the community, educating stakeholders, and incorporating evidence-based intervention strategies. The rural workforce can solve the lack of awareness about vaccination.
Social mobilization actions will focus on risk communications and community engagement. Leaders will respond to the perceptions of communities and health service providers on the COVID-19 vaccines. They’ll ensure that all people perceive and understand the vaccination process correctly and act accordingly. This will also include efforts to sensitize key community-level influencers like the Panchayat and Gram Sabha members, Mahila Mandals, and religious leaders on key messages regarding vaccinations.
With a population of our size where cultures, languages, and local ground conditions change every few kilometres, the role of a community mobilizer becomes a powerful one in ensuring the success of any health initiative. With such a community effort, we can beat COVID-19 countrywide.