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Pakistani women take COVID vaccines door-to-door to overcome hesitancy and isolation

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Around the world, governments are dealing with large numbers of citizens who are still not vaccinated against COVID-19? In Pakistan, one province is trying to solve that problem by taking the vaccine to people's front doors. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Karachi.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: A doctor gives a pep talk to some two dozen women in a medical center.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They're about to go through this Karachi suburb to offer COVID-19 vaccines.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: The doctor says, "we've got Pfizer, Moderna, Sinovac."

This is part of a campaign to reach some 12 million people across the southern province of Sindh who still haven't had their first dose. They're mostly the vaccine hesitant and women from conservative families who largely stay home. That's why the government is sending out female health workers. They're more likely to get a foot in the door. Medics fill blue cooler boxes with vaccines.

(CROSSTALK)

HADID: Namra, a 21-year-old health worker, asks for a mix. She's only got one name, like most people we speak to.

NAMRA: Pfizer.

HADID: She jumps into a rickshaw with her team...

(SOUNDBITE OF RICKSHAW MOTOR)

HADID: ...And reaches a slum dominated by Hindus and Sikhs.

We're walking through piles of garbage, through very, very narrow alleyways.

We enter the Hindu temple grounds.

NAMRA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Namra is meant to vaccinate door to door, but she'd rather do it here in the temple. My colleague, Abdul Sattar, translates.

NAMRA: (Through translator) This is the only clean place we where we can do it.

HADID: Her decision to use the temple is striking in a Muslim majority country where Hindus are often looked down upon. The other team members set out to convince people to get vaccinated.

(CROSSTALK)

HADID: They greet Kamli. She's sitting with her husband in a patch of sunshine in an alley. She's not vaccinated because, she says, she's got kidney stones.

KAMLI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She's worried the vaccine will make her sicker. She can't afford a doctor. She says, "my husband sells balloons. We can barely afford bread." The health workers prod Kamli to get vaccinated.

KAMLI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She shrugs. It's like this again and again. Then health workers head to a hut where a man is lounging in his front yard on a day bed. Kamran invites us in. He's vaccinated, but says his relatives aren't. They worry the jab will make them sick, or worse, impotent.

KAMRAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: As they chat, Namra, who is giving the vaccines, leaves the Hindu temple.

NAMRA: (Through translator) Just 1% has been vaccinated.

HADID: So she tries a different tactic. She sees Kamran's cousins milling about, and she starts offering to vaccinate them.

NAMRA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "I've got American, I've got Chinese," she says. And one of his cousins, Prakash, agrees. She fills a syringe and gives a shot. The mood shifts. A line gathers. Women with wailing toddlers push their older children forward to get jabbed. A young woman wears a shirt so tattered that Namra injects the vaccine into her arm through a hole in her sleeve. Teenage girls wait for their turn, and that brings the young men. It's a successful day.

And if this can be replicated, it will nudge the first dose vaccination rate here to 90%. Health workers say it could be a model for other places where the vaccine supply isn't a problem. The solution might lie in turning up.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.