Misinformation, Rumours at the Centre of Vaccine Hesitancy in Meghalaya

·11 min read

India opened up the nationwide COVID-19 inoculation programme to its adult population on 1 May, 2021, and despite walk-in registrations as well as ample vaccination slots available throughout Meghalaya on the CoWIN app, the state has managed to fully vaccinate only about 7 percent so far, leaving a big chunk of its roughly 20 lakh eligible population unvaccinated.

However, the optimistic hill state of Meghalaya has set for itself the elusive task of vaccinating its entire adult population by September end – early October 2021.

In a virtual meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma admitted, “We are still below the national average in certain cases."

Also Read: A Bihar Village Refused To Get Jabbed Earlier, Now 90% Are Vaccinated

Talks with various experts and commentators from the state suggest that the poor performance is a result of vaccine hesitancy among the citizens.

"The state is fighting a huge misinformation war," said Meghalaya's Principal Secretary in charge of Health and Family Welfare, Sampath Kumar.

He added that because the state has a majority of indigenous population, the public administration faces distinct challenges while mobilising people for introducing anything that is new.

Also Read: Video of 'Doctor' Spreading False Claims About COVID-19 Goes Viral

Conspiracy Theories, Superstitions, and ‘Religious Reasons’

"I won't take the vaccine, God will protect me and my family," said Elisa, (name changed) from Tura. "I have seen videos of people becoming magnetic after vaccination, so how can you say that it is not the mark of the beast?" she asked sharply.

In another instance, Reibok (name changed) from Shillong said, "We are a family of orthodox Christians, neither of my two siblings nor I have ever been vaccinated against any disease in the past as well. If we are true and honest to our faith, no harm will come our way."

When pointed out that fellow believers have died because of COVID the world over, Reibok said, "No vaccine could have prevented these deaths for it is all God's will."

Also Read: Hesitancy Against COVID Vaccine: Is It a Pattern Across Nations?

An influential occultist who goes by the name of 'Pastor Phawa' made headlines when he went around convincing his followers to reject the COVID-19 vaccine in the name of God.

This led to low vaccination numbers in the remote villages of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya.

It is incorrect to call this person a pastor, said Reverend Lyndan Syiem, pastor of the Mawroh Presbyterian church, under the KJP Synod Sepngi.

""Phawa is a self-described preacher who goes around many remote villages in the Khasi and Jaintia hills trying to dissuade people from getting vaccinated."" - Reverend Lyndan Syiem

He added, "These people are in the fringe, but social media has empowered them to reach within a larger circle and spread their message of doom and gloom."

Also Read: Will Surely Die After COVID Vaccine: Hesitancy in MP Tribal Areas

Social Media is Abuzz With Rumours

Anti-vaccine propaganda is rife on social media. One WhatsApp message doing the rounds reads that vaccine vials are filled with water, while another says that the COVID-19 vaccine will make one more sick and will kill a person within two years of taking the jab, or threaten the future of their race.

Principal Secretary, Sampath Kumar, says, "Social media misinformation has created doubts and confusion in remote rural areas where there is limited access to formal channels of verified and authentic news.”

He adds, "This problem has been further exacerbated by the containment measures imposed during the second wave and limited our scope for organising awareness programmes to dispel myths around vaccination."

Like Elisa, many in Meghalaya, especially in the deeper pockets of the state think that COVID is a hoax and that the vaccine is linked to the 'beast', described in the Christian book of Revelation.

They are strongly guided by the thought that the vaccine is a precursor, if not the direct mark of evil.

The population of Meghalaya has a Christian majority, constituting roughly 75 percent of the total population of the state. Christians in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya predominantly adhere to the Presbyterian denomination while in the Garo Hills, there are more adherents to the Baptist denomination. The Catholics are relatively evenly spread across the state.

Father (Dr) Joby Joseph SDB and rector of St. Anthony's college, Shillong, says that there are some Christians who wrongly quote the Bible, especially to the non-Christians to justify their reason for not getting vaccinated.

"They say that the Bible commands them to not take the vaccine, however, on the contrary, the Bible is laden with references about healing, the importance of medication and how doctors are a gift from God."

He adds, "This is also why the Catholic Church is into the ministry of healing and hospitals."

Also Read: Vaccine Hesitancy: History Tells Us We Should Listen, Not Condemn

Many villagers in Garo Hills reportedly run away at the sight of healthcare workers and government officials to avoid getting vaccinated or getting tested for the virus.

"We tried to make the villagers aware through our Block Development Officers, but myths and rumours through social media prevailed," said NCP chief and Gambegre MLA, Saleng A Sangma.

Relentless campaigns and the ruthless destruction by the second wave across the country have, however, helped convince a few people in his constituency, Sangma said.

Shillong born scientist, Dr Debamitra Chakravorty, says that a viral social media message professing that Luc Montagnier, a French virologist and Nobel laureate has said that whoever takes or has taken any COVID-19 vaccine will die within two years.

She says, "This has made a lot of people skeptical about the coronavirus vaccines." But the quote was misattributed to him and she assures that there is no scientific evidence to support other theories that Luc Montagnier makes on the vaccination issue.

Rumours and fear mongering are however not new concepts to the hills of Meghalaya.

Fringe elements have discouraged people in the past from enrolling their names in the electoral roll, MGNREGA, Aadhaar and the State Medical Insurance Scheme.

Many people in the villages of Meghalaya wrapped their fingers in plastic or used a stick to cast their vote during elections because putting their naked finger on the EVM button would mean enrolling for the evil number of the beast, 666.

"Eventually everyone will take it (the vaccine) as they took up relief aid in the past after showing some degree of hesitancy, that is for sure. It is just that this time, precious lives are at stake," said a dejected Dr Meban Aibor Kharkongor, senior medical specialist and in-charge of the covid ward at Dr Gordon Roberts' Hospital, Shillong.

Also Read: Misinformation, Rumours Behind COVID Vaccine Hesitancy in Kashmir

Questions Regarding the Vaccine Timeline

A section of the society also believes that the safety and efficacy of the vaccines is questionable because the development process was rushed.

Vanessa Kharbudon, a private sector employee from Shillong says, "These experimental vaccines have been developed too quickly.”

She adds, "There is no data yet on the long term ramifications of the vaccines available today." Because of this reason, observers feel that it is only valid for people to be apprehensive about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Reverend Syiem says that majority of the population are also cautious and do not want jump into things that they are not sure of.

Vaccines: Immoral and Unethical

Contents of the vaccines have also been a cause of skepticism and debate. A video originally posted on a Facebook page, spread like wildfire in Meghalaya.

It claimed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine contains cells of an aborted male foetus, posing a serious ethical dilemma to those whose faith opposes abortion.

Milaro D. (name changed) says, "The vaccines available to us have parts of aborted human foetuses. This is ethically and morally wrong and against our religion."

Dr Chakravorty, a scientist, however, tells in very straight terms that there are no cells from aborted foetuses in any of the COVID-19 vaccines in the world.

She says, "Manufacturing vaccine related proteins with foetal cell lines have been multiplied synthetically in laboratories for a million times already and cannot be of ethical and religious concern." She adds, "These descendent cell lines are not the cells of an aborted child as they never formed a part of the foetus."

Also Read: Misleading Posts on Use of New Born Calf Serum in Covaxin Go Viral

Conspiracy Theories From the US

American right wing conspiracy theories are another primary source of all the false teachings that have been doing the rounds, says Reverend Syiem.

He adds, "American right wing conspiracy theories are responsible to a great extent in leading many people to vaccine hesitancy and there is also pseudo science that comes through these social media posts which many of our people are picking up instead of listening to our doctors."

Businesses Pay the Price of Vaccine Hesitancy

Business owners, especially the non essential business owners are one of the worst affected segments of the society because of COVID induced lockdowns in the state.

They are allowed to function for only three days a week for six hours.

"Despite suffering great losses, our expenditure cost remains the same," says Monuranjan Gogoi, store manager of Blackberrys, Shillong.

He adds, "Last month, we received only ten days worth of salary and if people do not get vaccinated, the cases won't come down and I fear the lockdown will continue for longer."

Sourojit Shome, owner of one of Shillong's oldest restaurants, Suruchi, says that prolonged curfews and militancy had plagued the state in the past and the latest covid crisis has only further added to the woes of business owners in Meghalaya.

"The hospitality sector never really saw a major boom in Meghalaya as it did in other parts of the country like Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand, owing to its longstanding history of militancy, until only a few years ago. Just when the sector began to pick up, COVID gave us a deathly blow." -

Budget restaurants like Suruchi that cater to mostly daily wage earners and office goers have been severely impacted by the statewide blanket lockdowns.

"I do not have many online food orders coming in as we serve simple Bengali meals,” says a downcast Sourojit, who has had a very difficult year so far. "I do not know how much longer we can sustain this way," he added.

Also Read: COVID Lockdowns Leave Migrant Workers Struggling for Healthcare, Vaccination

Insensitivity in Tackling Hesitancy by the Government Backfires

The state government’s recent steps like mandatory vaccination for vendors, shopkeepers and taxi drivers to counter vaccine hesitancy have come under intense criticism by the general public, and also by the Meghalaya High Court, which directed the state to not employ coercive means to vaccinate people.

“Our leaders have come across as insensitive in their briefings while handling the pandemic, so when the order for mandatory vaccination was passed by the state, people resisted believing that this was the government's way of asserting total control over the individual,” says assistant professor, Dr Ellerine Diengdoh of St Mary's College, Shillong.

A survey by the Indian Institute of Public Health, Shillong, on vaccine hesitancy showed that 42 percent of the state’s healthcare workers were hesitant to take the vaccine.

Shillong based filmmaker and member of the bilingual webzine, Raiot, Tarun Bhartiya remarks, “The government should have realised that if the health workers are not taking the vaccine then there is an issue and they should have gotten their act together much in advance.”

The Way Forward

Despite its delayed start, the state has gone all out in convincing people to get vaccinated.

It has joined hands with faith leaders, local village chiefs and community influencers to tackle hesitancy, especially in rural Meghalaya.

The state‘s COVID-19 helpline, 14410, that was launched in collaboration with Shillong based entrepreneur, Mark L Stone, also began to educate people on the importance of vaccines.

Mark and his team at Avenues, a life coaching social enterprise, went ahead and got themselves vaccinated to inspire others with their vaccination story.

“This conscious decision inspired majority of our process associates to follow our lead and in some cases, entire families were moved to act,” says Mark.

In his opinion, there is a larger concern brewing over the choice to complete the vaccination cycle with a section of citizens choosing to not go ahead with scheduling their second jabs.

Reasons as diverse as 'I’m afraid of falling ill again' and 'one is enough' to fears around pregnancy and side effects have been countered by the 14410 team during vaccination follow-up calls.

“Even with all that information out there, citizens still need the reassurance of a human voice, especially if it is based on personal experiences and facts,” says Mark.

(Paulomi C Trivedi is a Shillong-born Mumbai-based journalist and co-founder of webtokri.)

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