Vax them fast: Why India urgently needs to expand the definition of frontline workers

After ferrying Uber customers in her car for two years, Dandu Laxmi has put down the back seats to make room for the vegetables she is selling out of her vehicle for a month now. With rent, EMI and children’s fees to pay and with fewer and fewer rides on the app, she did not have much of a choice. Going out to hawk her wares every day in Hyderabad, she admits, makes her nervous about whether she might contract and bring the infection home. Having lost her husband to Covid-19 last year, she knows the heavy cost the virus can extract. But the 38-year-old has not taken the vaccine or tried to for the simple reason that she does not know how to go about it. “I don’t know how to take the vaccine, or where to get it,” she says.

Unlike Laxmi, food delivery partner Tarun Kumar knows that he has to register on Co-WIN for the vaccine but his attempts to get a slot in Bengaluru so far have been unsuccessful. “One of my friends managed to get it through a private doctor. I think those who go out to work every day should get the vaccine,” says the 35-year-old.

When India launched its vaccination drive, apart from healthcare workers and senior citizens, the police, armed forces and municipal workers were included in the priority frontline category. With various parts of the country now under lockdown and subject to various restrictions, experts suggest that once supply constraints ease, there is cause to take up vaccination on priority for those who step out for work — from food delivery executives to warehouse staff to vegetable and milk vendors. They not only risk their lives by going out to work but also enable many others to hunker down and isolate safely and keep the economy running. The experts also emphasise that vaccination must be made accessible and equitable, so that people like Laxmi can be immunised without having to jump through the hoop of compulsory online registration.


“Priority must be given to the informal sector, the self-employed who function at the interface of multiple people on a day-to-day basis such as cleaning staff, barbers, auto drivers. And we can’t depend on a tech platform to register them. It needs to be decentralised, and camps need to be held at public schools, parks, even places of worship, involving local networks,” says Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor at Azim Premji University.

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The definition of frontline workers needs to be expanded, says Manavi Atri, a Bengaluru-based advocate working with vulnerable communities and around accessibility issues. “Right now, the only way medicines can reach Covid patients and families or those isolating at home is through delivery executives of apps like Swiggy or Dunzo. It’s absolutely imperative that the state prioritises them for vaccination, just as governments accepted the recommendation to treat journalists as frontline workers,” she says. These workers, she adds, are most at risk but don’t have a choice about venturing out. “There is no other way to earn remuneration for them.”

When asked about whether he was apprehensive about having to step out every day and go to multiple locations, Maxwell, a food delivery executive in Kerala, was candid. “Someone has to make that sacrifice, right? Otherwise, how will we run our house?” he asks, while waiting in line to give a swab sample as part of the company’s regular Covid testing.

Some companies, like Swiggy, Zomato, Uber, Ola and Amazon, have announced programmes to vaccinate employees. Both Zomato and Swiggy said they are working to get delivery partners vaccinated quickly and that their status would be visible on the apps, ET reported on Saturday.

Amazon India announced on Tuesday that it will be hosting on-site vaccination camps for delivery staff, starting with Delhi and expanding to other locations depending on supply. Uber said it will be offering financial incentives running up to Rs 18.5 crore for the vaccination of over 1,50,000 drivers over six months. However, Nageshwar Rao, a driver registered with both Uber and Ola who was recently discharged after 17 days in hospital with Covid, says he is unaware of any such policy. “If I had got the vaccine, it would have been better. I would like my wife to get the vaccine but I’m not sure how,” says the 36-year-old. Uber and Ola did not respond to emailed questions seeking details of the proposed vaccine rollout.

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“It is very important that cab drivers, who work for hours at a stretch, sometimes ferrying Covid-positive patients without PPE kits, get vaccinated. The more this is delayed, the more difficult it will become,” says Shaik Salauddin, founder of Telangana Gig and Platform Workers’ Union, who has written to the Union health ministry about expediting vaccinating for this section.

Along with prioritising them for vaccination once there is adequate supply, there is also a need to spread awareness and dispel anxieties. Laxmi, for instances, confesses that she is nervous about taking the vaccine, despite having lost her husband to the virus. Nor has anyone tried to dispel her fears about possible side-effects. “No one in my village back near Mahbubnagar has taken it either,” she says.

While most countries are following an age-based stratification for vaccination, prioritising the elderly, who are considered most at risk, a few, like France and Singapore, are expanding it based on occupation.

Rituparna Chakraborty, executive vice-president of staffing firm TeamLease, says that once those above 45 years are covered, priority could be given to essential worker like warehouse staff and delivery executives, and then move to outbound workers. “But there has to be a very clear metric, a transparent mechanism. Otherwise, in India, everything comes down to jugaad and it can be misused.” The US, she points out, was able to bring down active cases mostly through vaccination, not lockdown. “But the vaccine process needs to kickstart in India for us to even talk about economic recovery.”

Chakraborty adds that right now, the focus for India must be to procure sufficient supply of vaccines, before going into the merits of which category of workers to prioritise. “While we can wish for vaccinating essential workers, it will remain a mere wish till we have enough vaccines. And if we have enough supply, we don’t have to get to the conversation of prioritisation —every Indian, after all, deserves the right to access the Covid vaccine.”

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