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Beyond Vaccinations, Shanti Ashram Provides Holistic Help for Vulnerable Communities

18 May 2022

In one of the final notes left behind by Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, he wrote:

I will give you a talisman...Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man or women whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her…Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.

For Dr. S.R. Subramanian, Programme Coordinator at the Shanti Ashram in Coimbatore, India, this quote stays with him when he is facing the sheer immensity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The confluence of challenges that COVID-19 has forced upon the poor and vulnerable weighs heavily on Subramanian. But as he contemplates Gandhi’s wisdom, he considers Shanti Ashram’s approach to addressing the overlapping issues the pandemic presents.

“Shanti Ashram is a creative laboratory where we come together to address the problems faced by our community,” he said, “we work with the people we serve to find common solutions.”

Chief among those solutions? Vaccination.

At Shanti Ashram, vaccination is more than a means to fight a particular disease. It is a kind of talisman that provides the opportunity to address a range of issues, Subramanian said.

“Vaccines are a way for us to address the holistic health of the communities we work with,” he said, “and it’s proving the first step in helping individuals, families, and religious communities integrate multiple aspects of health into their everyday life.”

Health “not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

KAICIID Board of Directors Member Dr. Kezevino Aram has been leading Shanti Ashram as its President since 2014. She explained their focus on vaccination comes from two sources: science and the scriptures she and others turn to at the Ashram. Both speak to the multivalent nature of challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Science and scripture tell us things do not develop in isolation,” said Aram, “they are connected to other societal dynamics like physical and mental well-being.

“This pandemic has highlighted the importance of health in all its dimensions: mental, physical, social, and spiritual,” she said.

For Aram, this definition of health is in keeping with the World Health Organization’s own definition. Affirming that health is “not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” Shanti Ashram delivers life-saving vaccines “without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social situation,” but also works toward helping those in their care “flourish in all dimensions of life and health.”

A medical doctor by training, Aram appreciates the advances science has brought to addressing public health crises like COVID-19 or, for that matter, the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  And yet, in her training, she found that the social and spiritual dimensions to health were largely ignored.

Aram believes the COVID-19 pandemic has helped remind government agencies and intergovernmental organizations that when using science as a means for societal progress, “dialogue with religious communities is not only extremely important, it’s absolutely necessary,” she said.

A more holistic framework for addressing vaccine inequity

That’s particularly the case when it comes to the ongoing problem of vaccine equity. As some developed nations are rolling out their third and fourth rounds of COVID-19 vaccination, many low and lower-middle income countries are still struggling to vaccinate their populations at all.

According to the United Nations (UN), vaccine inequity will not only leave millions or billions vulnerable to the virus, but will “deepen inequality and exaggerate the gap between rich and poor and will reverse decades of hard-won progress on human development.”

Aram said that the global moral framework inherent in the UN’s and WHO’s approaches has not been challenging enough to prevent hoarding, wasting, and other issues contributing to vaccine inequity. For her, religious communities can help provide an ethical foundation that stresses the intersectional nature of the pandemic, the necessity of addressing holistic health and interdependent issues, and the need to consider how vaccine equity is imperative for all.

In this way, vaccination programmes like that of Shanti Ashram serve as a reminder that “when science, society and spirituality are in dialogue, we are able to give to common people a much more integrated answer to life’s issues, rather than a fragmented response,” she said.

Addressing the gender gap

Monica Cristina, a member of Shanti Ashram’s staff, explained one facet of this inequity that they are trying to address is the gender gap.

Cristina said that for every 1,000 vaccinated men in India, there are only 954 women. “This is a major gap,” she said. There are multiple reasons for this, Cristina said, from men having more access to vaccines through the institutions they work with to the fact that many women feel they cannot afford to take a day off from taking care of their families to receive the vaccine.

Through their “Vaccination for All” programme, the Ashram employs a combination of community mobilisation, public and private partnerships, and interreligious cooperation to address vaccination hesitancy and reach the most vulnerable communities — like the poor, people with co-morbidities, and women.

By going directly to the people around Combiatore and addressing their biggest concerns and questions through dialogue, Shanti Ashram is reaching those unreached by institutional vaccine programmes, said Cristina.

Thus far, Shanti Ashram has been able to vaccinate 3,320 people through 43 vaccination sessions at hospitals, at their facilities, and through a mobile service, without wasting a single dose of the vaccine.

Interreligious dialogue key to success

Dialogue with other religious partners has been key to the programme’s success. Working with local Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities, Subramanian said they are, “together addressing vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable populations.”

This work has been undergirded by KAICIID’s ongoing support and partnership, said Subramanian. “KAICIID and Shanti Ashram have a long and productive partnership together,” he said. By providing inspiration and support for their interreligious collaborations, KAICIID has helped Shanti Ashram move toward goals shared in common with other religious communities.

“As a Gandhian organization, we work with any institution with shared goals to get the job done,” said Subramanian.

That willingness to convene multiple stakeholders to address the most pressing issues facing humanity today — whether that be a pandemic or climate change, hate speech or violent conflict — reminds Subramanian and his colleagues at Shanti Ashram of another Gandhi quote.

“Gandhi said, ‘the future depends on what we do today,’” cited Subramanian, “and what we are doing today is bringing people together to share information, build alignment, and solve problems.

“This is our standard policy and strategy, for vaccinations and any other issue we face,” he said.

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