Healthcare workers at the frontline of India’s COVID-19 battle got their first jabs on Saturday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching the world’s largest vaccination drive against the pandemic, showing the light at the end of a 10-month tunnel that upended millions of lives and livelihoods.
More than one crore cases and 1.5 lakh fatalities later, India took its first steps out of the pandemic with shots of the Covishield and Covaxin vaccines being administered at medical centres across the country to a collective sigh of relief that this could finally be the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 trauma.
Along with healthcare workers, others such as AIIMS director Randeep Guleria, NITI Aayog member V K Paul, who is also head of an empowered group on medical equipment and management plan to tackle coronavirus outbreak, BJP MP Mahesh Sharma and West Bengal minister Nirmal Maji also received their first shot of the two-dose vaccine.
Addressing the nation ahead of the launch, the prime minister reminded people that two doses of the vaccine are very important and asked them to continue with masks and social distancing even after receiving the jabs.
Reassuring people that emergency use authorisation was given to the two ‘made in India’ vaccines only after scientists were convinced of their safety and effectiveness, he said the vaccines will ensure a decisive victory for the country over the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“Dawaai bhi, kadaai bhi,” Modi said, asking people to guard against complacency and follow COVID-19 appropriate behaviour.
Striking an emotional chord, Modi spoke of the disruption the pandemic had caused to people’s lives, isolating victims of the coronavirus and denying the dead traditional last rites.
In a choked voice, the prime minister also referred to sacrifices made by healthcare and frontline workers, hundreds of whom lost their lives to the viral infection.
“Our vaccination programme is driven by humanitarian concerns, those exposed to maximum risk will get priority,” the prime minister said.
Injecting a note of confidence, he said it normally takes years to make a vaccine but in India two ‘Made in India’ vaccines were ready in a short span of time and work on other vaccines was also progressing at a fast pace.
Paving the way for the massive pan-India inoculation drive, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) had earlier this month approved Covishield, from the Oxford/AstraZeneca stable and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, and the indigenously developed Covaxin from Bharat Biotech for restricted emergency use.
Over three lakh healthcare workers will be inoculated on day one at 3,006 sites across all states and union territories. Around 100 beneficiaries will be vaccinated at each session site, officials said.
The shots are first being offered to an estimated one crore healthcare workers, and around two crore frontline workers, and then to persons above 50 years of age, followed by persons younger than 50 years of age with associated comorbidities.
Accordingly, sanitation worker Manish Kumar was the first person in the national capital to get a shot at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. As Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan looked on, people around broke out in spontaneous applause.
Vardhan said the two vaccines are a ‘sanjivani’, life infusing, in the fight against the pandemic.
“We have won the battle against polio and now we have reached the decisive phase of winning the war against Covid. I want to congratulate all frontline workers on this day,” Vardhan told reporters shortly after the first vaccine shots were administered.
Across the country, there was an almost festive air with many hospitals and medical centres decorated with flowers, balloons and buntings. Prayers were offered in several places.
“It’s a great day for humankind. I feel elated to get the first dose,” said Bipasha Seth, a doctor at a private hospital in the West Bengal capital Kolkata who received the first shot.
It’s a big day, said state Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim.
“We were in a state of depression for the last one year. From today, we will again relive our lives,” he said.
In Gujarat, the drive began at 161 centres in the state where the vaccine jabs were administered to health workers almost simultaneously.
“I am honoured that my name has been selected for first dose of vaccine at this centre in Rajkot. I didn’t have any apprehensions…,” said Ashok bhai, who drives a medical van and was among the first recipients in the state.
“Nobody should have fear of side effects of this vaccine as it has passed through many trials and experts have certified it,” added former Medical Council of India (MCI) president Ketan Desai who got a jab at the civil hospital in Ahmedabad in the presence of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.
In the Maharashtra capital Mumbai, JJ Hospital Dean Dr Ranjit Mankeshwar was among the first in the state to get the shot. The inoculation drive is taking place at 285 centres in Maharashtra.
Ranganath Bhojje, a worker at the Goa Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), kicked off the vaccination drive in the coastal state. Union minister Prakash Javadekar and Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, who were present when Bhojje was given the dose, offered him a rose after it was done.
In Madhya Pradesh, where healthcare workers were welcomed with flowers at some centres and doctors performed a ‘puja’ at a temple in Gwalior, a sanitation worker was among the first beneficiaries.
Tulsa Tandi, a 51-year-old sanitation worker was first in the queue in Chhattisgarh.
“Tulsa Tandi, a Swacchtakarmi (sanitation worker) at the Dr B R Ambedkar Memorial Hospital Raipur since 2008, was the first person to get vaccinated in the state,” state director for the National Health Mission Priyanka Shukla told PTI.
Tamil Nadu rolled out the COVID-19 vaccination drive at 166 sites across the state with a government doctor here becoming the first to be administered the shot.
And in Telangana, a woman sanitation worker received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a Hyderabad hospital to cheers and claps. Union Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy and Telangana Health Minister Eatala Rajender formally launched the vaccination programme at the state-run Gandhi Hospital.
The drive to combat COVID-19 began in Kerala at 133 designated centres with prominent government doctors among the first batch of frontline workers to be administered the vaccine.
State Health Minister K K Shailaja said 13,300 healthcare workers will be covered in a single day.
The cost of vaccination of healthcare and frontline workers will be borne by the central government.