At 8.16 am on Monday, I dialled 1075, the COVID helpline number on the Co-Win portal, which promises to resolve all vaccination-related queries. The portal had assigned the 8-10 am slot for my 60-year-old mother’s first jab at the Reserve Police Hospital in Cuttack, Odisha. Seeing no signs of any hospital staff or the initiation of the registration process, I had called to know if we would have to wait longer.
“We have handed over the vaccines to them. It is up to them when to come and administer it. We have no jurisdiction over them,” in came the polite yet vague answer from the other end. The man didn’t answer who was “them” before snapping the call.
As the clock struck 9, people waiting outside the gates of the hospital, one of the few COVID vaccination centres in Cuttack, started getting restless. Many of them, including those in their 70s and 80s, have been waiting outside the gate since 7 am. Many with knee problems and old age-related ailments were unable to stand any longer and had leaned themselves against a tree or sat on a piece of concrete outside. Several of them looked agitated, and said it is their second visit to the vaccination centre, as despite being made to wait for more than four hours on Friday, they were turned away. More worried were the elderly who have been coming for their booster shot, but in vain.
“On Friday, we were allotted the 8-10 am slot. But the staff, instead of asking for our Co-Win appointment slip, asked if we had a reference or came from a police family. They made us wait and only allowed families of cops. We were finally asked to leave when the vaccines got over. Strangely, nothing of this sort is mentioned in the app. What’s the point of allotting this centre to civilians when you have to be partial to cops or ‘those with contacts’?” said one of the persons, who wished to remain anonymous.
The hospital staff was nonchalant when asked about the vaccination and preferred passing the buck to the team responsible for the inoculation.
Around 9.30 am, when two hospital staff entered the premises, a few among the waiting public followed them to ask when the vaccination would start. The duo shrugged and said they had no idea as they were just hospital employees and were not involved in the vaccination process. A few minutes later, a crowd gathered under the hospital’s portico, demanding to know if the vaccination would take place at all.
A visibly angry octogenarian couple said it was their third visit to the centre for their very first dose. “The least you could do is to tell us if there would be a vaccination session today instead of making us wait for hours. Can our old bones bear this pressure?” said the husband, adding that just a notice put up outside the hospital gate would have sufficed.
One of the staffers (who didn’t identify herself despite being asked several times) stormed out and started yelling at the crowd. “If you have so many queries, wait till the vaccinating team arrives or go and ask the CDMO. They (the team) may come late or they may not come at all. We don’t know anything about it. It is not our concern,” she shouted.
The irate crowd demanded to know why the hospital is a COVID vaccination centre when the vaccination process isn’t operational and the staff is utterly clueless. To this the staffer said, “Priority is given to bigger hospitals like SCB Medical College and Hospital, City Hospital and another in CDA. It is on the mercy of authorities to send the rest here. If you can’t wait, go to these hospitals for vaccination.” The hospitals are among the bigger medical facilities in Cuttack.
When this Federal staffer started recording the confrontation, the woman mellowed down and tried switching to a cajoling tone.
“How can they call it a ‘mercy vaccination’ when we all equally deserve the shots. Besides, there is no use allocating a particular centre on the Co-Win app when in the end you send the public scuttering from one centre to another. It also increases the risk of contracting the disease,” said Sib Narayan Nayak, a businessman, who was waiting to get his parents vaccinated.
Within minutes of the argument, police in uniform arrived at the centre. A cop in mufti asked everyone to vacate the premises, saying “there would be no vaccination today.” When asked, he refused to divulge his name and designation and said there were orders from above to disperse the crowd.
I asked him why he couldn’t come earlier to inform the same when dozens of elderly were waiting in the sun. He first said that he had told a few of them and then changed his version to: “I can only inform when I get orders”.
Minati Raut, another staffer at the hospital, said the only option for the public is to wait for the vaccine, even if it means visiting the centre every day.
After warding off the public outside, the police pasted a notice reading, “Public Not Allowed”.
But then, where will the public go?
(The narration is the personal account of a Federal staffer).