As the paramedic wiped the skin on his arm with an alcohol wipe and prepared the syringe, Kartik Biswas felt an overwhelming sense of relief: he was finally about to receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. His immunization has been made possible thanks to a campaign by the state of Kerala, in southern India, targeting some of the most marginalized people in the country: migrant workers.
It is rare that this group, which constitutes a fifth of the 100 million workforce in a country with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants, is the specific target of state aid. However, in recent weeks, southern coastal state officials have been setting up vaccination camps and putting up public health posters in local languages, urging migrant workers to protect themselves against the virus. “I stayed at home for a whole year during the confinement and I managed to get my job back with great difficulty. If my health suffers now, who will take care of my family? I was determined to get vaccinated, ”says Biswas, 44, a supervisor of a building under construction.
Repeated lockdowns shut down industries, resulting in the loss of millions of jobs, while a brutal second wave in May 2021 overwhelmed the healthcare system in India, the second-worst-hit country in the world after the United States.
Biswas, who moved to Kerala from Kolkata four years ago, was one of 500 workers vaccinated during a three-day campaign conducted at his workplace last week by the Employment Department amid a surge in cases in the city. . The state has administered a first dose to about 34,000 workers and a second dose to about 1,000, of the 300,000 that appear in official records. “I feel relieved. Five of my six roommates contracted COVID-19 at the peak of the second wave. I started looking for a way to get vaccinated since then, but I couldn’t, ”says Biswas by phone. “Vaccination is essential to protect our lives and our future,” he says. India aims to immunize all eligible and willing citizens by the end of the year, but the campaign has been plagued by shortages, public doubts and the digital divide.
Return in search of work
Migrant workers are among those most affected by the pandemic. Up to 11.4 million returned to their home states during confinement, as shown by government data, as jobs were depleted. However, most economic activities have resumed as infections declined and authorities relaxed restrictions. Unemployment rates are gradually falling, according to data from an independent expert group.
States like Kerala, a magnet for foreigners for the past decade, have seen migrants from all over India return to seek work in hospitality, factories and construction sites. “We have a huge population of outside employees and everyone should be protected. We have received limited doses, but we are dividing what we get and organizing separate vaccination camps for them, ”explains S. Chithra, Kerala Labor Commissioner. “We are trying to raise awareness that vaccines are harmless. We have posters in the Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and Hate languages that we post on social media ”.
Approximately 12% of the 940 million adults in India have received the full regimen and more than 40% have a first dose, according to data from the Ministry of Health. Vaccination is seen as key to unlocking more jobs and facilitating movement between states, several of which require people to show the vaccination certificate or undergo a covid-19 test that can cost 800 rupees (about nine euros), a couple of days’ salary for many.
At the other end of India, in the village of Tarinipur, in the northeastern state of Assam, Tahir Hussain Talukdar insists that he had sought the vaccine at local health centers three times, but had no luck. Talukdar, 25, lost his job as a cleaner at a complex in southeastern Andhra Pradesh, and says he has survived thanks to the help of others. “There is no work in my town. The labor contractor I’ve been calling tells me to get vaccinated before I come. I need to put it on because that’s the only way I can get a job, ”he says.
India has redoubled its efforts against covid-19 amid fears of a third wave. Several construction companies and other major companies have arranged for their staff, both payroll and informal workers, to be vaccinated. State toilets are climbing hills and navigating through rivers and lakes to reach the most remote parts of the vast country. But the pace of immunization remains slow and many remain on the sidelines, warn activists and migration experts. This group often remains invisible even though their skills are desperately needed in manufacturing, construction and hospitality. “People looking for a daily wage job are asked if they are vaccinated,” says Benoy Peter, director of the Center for Migration and Inclusive Development, which runs a mobile vaccination unit for migrants in Kerala in partnership with the state.
Peter argues that Kerala’s vaccination campaign should be “sensitive to the challenges of migrants” and suggests expanding it to Sundays and nights to reach those who are likely to be ignored, such as day laborers, scrap metal collectors and women. Most of the migrants are in the informal sector. Without a regular employer, they can’t afford to take time off to get the puncture, activists say. “This section is more vulnerable to the challenges they face in accessing the vaccine,” laments Sanjay Awasthi, director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in India. “It is imperative that their coverage is taken into account.”
Migrants in Kerala who have already received the injection hope to return to their pre-pandemic lives. Samir Kuanar, 37, lost his plumbing job in Kuwait when the pandemic struck last year. Last July, she got an interview with a Qatar-based employment agency that provides domestic labor. “They sent me an offer, but I ran into an obstacle: I was not vaccinated,” he says. As luck would have it, he got his first dose last week. “I hope to fly soon. Vaccination is my ticket to a job ”.
Roli Srivastava Belongs to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.