Vaccine hesitancy, lack of coordination and communication gaps keeps workers away:Only 852 construction workers get vaccinated on Day 1 in Punjab

No long queues or mad scramble for registrations, the first day of phase 3 Covid jabs for construction workers in the age group of 18-44 got off to a slow start in Punjab on Monday, with only 852 workers opting to get inoculated. Nearly 2.19 lakh construction workers in the age group of 18-44 years are registered with the state’s labour department.

Vaccine hesitancy, coupled with communication gaps — many construction workers claimed that they were not even aware that a vaccination drive had started especially for them — and lack of coordination between the labour and health departments were the main reasons for Day one’s poor show.

After receiving the first batch of 1 lakh Covishield doses from the Serum Institute of India (SII) against its order of 30 lakh doses, Punjab started with vaccinations for 18-44 age group Monday with construction workers as the priority beneficiaries in the first round. Two other professions selected as ‘high risk groups’ by the government are teachers and government employees.

On Monday, construction workers that The Indian Express spoke to expressed general hesitancy towards getting vaccinated, with many stating that they did not want to get vaccinated because they had apprehensions about the vaccine’s safety.

As per figures compiled by the state’s labor department at the end of vaccination drive Monday, just 852 construction workers had got the jabs across the state — the maximum number of them being from Kapurthala (187), followed by 88 in Ludhiana, 78 in Hoshiarpur, 66 in SAS Nagar (Mohali), 62 in Moga and 53 in Sangrur.

Ludhiana, the district which was allocated the maximum 16,000 doses from the first batch of 1 lakh doses and which is considered to be an industrial hub that has thousands of migrant workers living in it, witnessed not even a hundred inoculations of construction workers.

Apart from Ludhiana, 16 other districts failed to vaccinate even 50 construction workers, including three who registered ‘zero’ vaccinations.

In Gurdaspur, 49 were vaccinated, followed by Rupnagar (45), Patiala (39), Ferozepur (38), Jalandhar (37), Pathankot (31), Amritsar (21), Tarn Taran (18), Fazilka (15) and Fatehgarh Sahib (12). Three districts where figures remained in single-digit were Faridkot (6), Muktsar (5) and Barnala (2). In Bathinda, Mansa and SBS Nagar, not a single construction worker was vaccinated, as per the data till 8.30 pm.

At a government dispensary in phase-7 of SAS Nagar (Mohali), where Punjab health minister Balbir Singh Sidhu paid a visit on Monday, the owner of a construction company told The Indian Express that he was told by authorities to bring his workers for vaccinations as the minister was scheduled to visit.

“I own a construction company and we are working on a government project. We are constructing a government building currently and I was told to get all my laborers for the vaccination drive today. At least12 of them got vaccinated later but they haven’t received any SMS yet confirming the same. The health staff was registering the data manually. They should inform us when the second dose of my workers is due now and where it will be given,” the owner said, requesting anonymity.

While the official timings to vaccinate beneficiaries was till 5 pm, the health staff vacated the phase-7 dispensary of Mohali around 1.30 pm and locked it. Later, some youngsters, who had got themselves registered on the CoWIN app, were seen requesting the staff to give them the vaccine but were turned back.

Yogendra Prasad, one of the construction workers who got vaccinated in Mohali, said, “We often have to go to different locations for work. So all labourers and workers should get vaccinated at the earliest. It is good that we are being given priority, but most construction workers were unaware of this drive starting today. The government needs to reach out to more people and spread the word.”

RK Yadav, general secretary, Samajwadi Party (Punjab unit), who runs an organization for welfare of migrants in Ludhiana, said that construction workers and other migrant workers face a lot of issues while getting registered with the state’s labour department, with some choosing even not to get themselves registered.

“This data of 2.19 lakh workers which the labour department has is not authentic and verified. Most construction workers do not get themselves registered because of hassles that they face during the process. No drives/camps are held to register workers. Fearing a lockdown, most workers have already moved back to their villages in UP and Bihar.”

Yadav said that construction workers were among the highest risked population, but the government has not been able to reach out to them. “Most were not even aware that the vaccination drive for them started today. All of them need to be vaccinated as they didn’t stop working even during lockdown for the fear of losing income.”

Hari Sahni, president, Azad Hind Nirmaan Mazdoor Union, Punjab, said that nearly 10,000 workers were registered with his union and they have been told not to get vaccinated.

“Neither do we trust the government nor the vaccine. So many messages come on WhatsApp stating that the vaccine is not safe, and it can lead to death. We are telling labourers not to get vaccinated because no government ever, either at the Centre or the state, has ever treated labourers/workers with dignity or respect. The ground reality is that laborers are made to run from pillar to post when they visit government offices for registration. Even though the official fee to register is just Rs 25-30, local staff often demand Rs 1200-1500 as bribe to process their files,” said Sahni.

VK Janjua, principal secretary, department of labour, Punjab, said that no construction worker who arrive at the vaccination centres will be sent back even if he/she isn’t registered with the labour department. “No worker will be denied a vaccine shot because they aren’t registred.

We will register them on-spot if needed. So even those workers who aren’t registered should come forward and get their jabs,” he said.

Janjua said that his department was in the process of sending SMS to all registered construction workers to come forward to get the jabs.

Dr Rajesh Bhaskar, nodal officer, Covid-19 Punjab, said that all vaccination centres have to remain open till 5 pm and staff has been instructed for the same.