Young health worker Masrat Farid has trekked long distances through remote Himalayan meadows in Indian-administered Kashmir to vaccinate nomadic herders in a campaign launched in June. Her challenge is not the treacherous terrain, she says, but persuading people to get inoculated against the coronavirus.
“Everywhere we go, it seems rumours 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 rumours.
And the rumours are plentiful.
Fuelled by misinformation and mistrust, many residents, particularly in remote areas, believe the vaccines cause impotence, serious side effects and could even kill. Some simply say they do not need the shots because they are immune to the coronavirus.
Still, Kashmir has done better than the rest of India.
Scores of health workers such as Farid have fully vaccinated more than 9 percent of the eligible people among the region’s 14 million population, compared with less than 5 percent for India’s nearly 1.4 billion people. Almost 53 percent in the Himalayan region have had a first shot.
Mukhti Khan, an elderly woman, belongs to a family of nomads who have travelled for centuries between summer mountain pastures and winter grazing grounds in the lowland plains, herding their goats, sheep and horses.
Recently, 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 more than 800 people so far.
Some of the attacks were driven by fears that videos taken by officials of the vaccination campaign could be used by the authorities to encourage support for the Indian government, which most Kashmiris deeply dislike.
Many want independence or a merger with neighbouring Pakistan, which administers another part of Kashmir. Both countries claim the entire disputed territory.