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This essay is published as part of WYV Young Voices, a column highlighting upcoming writers under the age of 21. 

The vaccination disparity between men and women is due to the government’s inefficacious vaccination policy and India’s patriarchal social norms.

CW: COVID-19 deaths

By Shreya Kalia

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi gloated about India’s victory against Coronavirus during the World Economic Forum in January this year. However, just two months after this, India witnessed an apocalyptic second wave of COVID-19. Funeral pyres were burning round-the-clock and graveyards ran out of space. 

Hundreds of corpses were found floating or buried in the sand on the banks of India’s holiest river, the Ganges. Social media was inundated with desperate calls for oxygen, medicines and hospital beds. 

Amidst all this, Modi, the megalomaniac that he is, was addressing election rally after rally in the Indian state of West Bengal flouting all COVID-19 protocols. Not a single press conference was held by him when the country was going through an unprecedented crisis. One can say that Modi abandoned the citizens in his naked pursuit of power. This makes one wonder how Modi is any different from the men who presided over the Bengal Famine, which killed an estimated 3 million people in 1943. A report by Reuters on May 1st also revealed that the government had ignored warnings by scientists about a second wave.

India has just emerged from a debilitating second wave and, with the presence of the delta variant and other mutations, a third wave is likely. In such a scenario, the need for a concrete vaccination plan, aimed at vaccinating its eligible 900 million large population at a fast pace is a no-brainer. Modi has been boasting about India’s record-breaking vaccination numbers on Twitter, but the reality on the ground is different.

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As per the data on the Government’s CoWIN (Winning Over COVID-19) dashboard, so far, only 7% of the population has been administered two doses of the vaccine, and there has been a massive vaccination divide between men and women in India. For every 1,000 cis men, only about 876 cis women have been inoculated (and just 17% of the trans community). As per the 2011 Census, the gender ratio of India is 943 females per 1000 males, meaning the vaccination disparity between men and women is worse than the gender ratio. Hence, this vaccination gap between men and women cannot just be attributed to the skewed gender ratio in the country.

The capital city of New Delhi has inoculated only 740 cis women for every 1000 cis men. The Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir which is governed by the Government of India has vaccinated only 714 cis women against 1000 cis men. The most populous state of Uttar Pradesh has only inoculated 757 cis women for every 1000 cis men. Unsurprisingly, the chief minister of this state is a Hindu militant monk who is infamous for his anti-muslim rhetoric. He belongs to the same Hindu Nationalist Party as Modi. 

Only a few states in India are defying this national trend. Like the state of Kerala, governed by the communist party where 1083 cis women have been inoculated for every 1000 cis men. The state of Andhra Pradesh, which is governed by the left-leaning YSR (Yeduguri Sandinti Rajasekhara Reddy) Congress, has vaccinated 1201 cis women against every 1000 cis men. The reasons for this vaccination disparity between these two genders are arguably the government’s inefficacious vaccination policy and India’s patriarchal social norms. 

Vaccination in India has always been free. Free mass immunization campaigns date back to the second half of the nineteenth century. But this time around, private hospitals could set the prices as they wished. A hospital in New Delhi was charging 1800 INR ($24 USD) per dose at the peak of vaccine shortage. The government capped the vaccine price at 780 INR ($10 USD) per dose for Covisheild and 1410 INR ($18 USD) per dose for India’s homegrown Covaxin. 

But even these prices are unaffordable for a majority of Indians. India’s annual median household income is just $3,168 USD as per the World Population Review. This means $264 per month. There are 4.8 people per household on average in India. Now considering the vaccine prices, the vaccination would cost a household 36% of their monthly income if they opt for Covisheild and 66% if Covaxin is opted for.

This makes the vaccine prices unaffordable for a lot of people, especially for marginalized genders due to gender wage gaps where men make more money. 

During the second wave, a photograph of a woman cooking food for the family while being on oxygen support emerged on Indian social media. This photo was hailed as the epitome of love, motherhood, and sacrifice rather than being condemned for showing how little regard the patriarchal society in India has for the health and lives of its womenfolk.

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A study, Gender Disparities in Healthcare Expenditures and Financing Strategies (HCFS), conducted by Jawaharlal Nehru University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis showed that in India, a family would prefer to spend on the healthcare of a male member as compared to a female member when it faces tight resource constraints. A study published in Duke University press also shows that girls are less immunized than boys. Since the vaccination is not free, families are preferring to vaccinate male members since it is the men who are given more importance in Indian families. 

Many supporters of the Modi Government have been arguing that vaccination facilities are free in government centers so people who cannot pay for the vaccine can avail the free slots. However, this argument is fallacious because there are many more paid slots than the free slots. As per a report by The Wire, the chance of finding a free slot can be as low as 2% in the country’s capital city of New Delhi. 

Individuals needed to pre-register themselves for vaccination on the CoWIN website. This was changed by the Health Ministry on June 15. But even this policy hindered women’s vaccination. It was reinforcing the digital divide that exists between men and women in India. As per the Fifth National Family Health Survey, 2020 only 42.6% of women have ever used the Internet in India. There is also a WhatsApp fake news problem. A lot of rumors are circulating on WhatsApp about women losing fertility after getting vaccinated, and these rumors are fuelling vaccine hesitancy among women. 

India does not have a robust door-to-door vaccination drive. One needs to visit a hospital or a health center to get vaccinated. This is also a barrier for women’s vaccination as women’s mobility in India is affected by restrictive socio-cultural norms and a lack of safe and sufficient transport infrastructure. Also, women do not have the agency to decide on their health. These decisions are mostly taken by the husbands, fathers, and families. 

Despite knowing all too well about how the social norms in India affect women’s access to health. The government has done nothing to vaccinate the country’s women. The vaccination drive is leaving us behind.

Shreya is a 19 y/o Indian feminist. Her passions include economics, books, and cycling. She loves to work with data and draws inferences from it to study why some societies are more gender unequal than others. You can follow her on Twitter: Azad_Shreya or email her at:  kaliashreya1@gmail.com

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