No mountain too high to vaccinate snow-marooned Himachal villagers

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By Vishal Gulati
Shimla, Jan 16 (IANS) One year ago today, India set out on the challenging journey of vaccinating its massive 1.38 billion-strong population against Covid-19 and it takes more than just physical strength to administer vaccines to elderly villagers, especially eligible children, existing in harsh weather conditions, and the onset of a third wave, on the other side of the lofty mountains of Himachal Pradesh.

It also takes grit and determination and both are in abundance amidst the health workers, who are trudging the snow-clad mountains to vaccinate the villagers in some of the most remote villages.

Unfazed by the harsh weather conditions, the healthcare workers are vaccinating children between 15-18 years of age and people above the age of 60 years at their doorsteps by navigating through snow-clad mountains.

“The snow-laden paths may look charming, but they are very slippery and harsh,” remarked Kavita Negi, a healthcare worker in Chitkul, the last inhabited village in Kinnaur district near the India-China border.

Slinging blue vaccine boxes over their shoulders, Kavita along with other healthcare workers was on a two-hour trek down and up to remote villages.

Last week’s moderate to heavy snowfall cut off the road network to several remote villages and hamlets for several days largely in Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur, Chamba, Kullu, Mandi and Shimla districts.

The Press Information Bureau of India has released an inspiring video where healthcare workers, trudging through snow-laden paths, are visiting villages for the vaccine shots.

Likewise, a video tweeted by Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya shows healthcare workers walking through snow in Kinnaur to reach a school to vaccinate children aged 15 to 18 years.

It’s hard work but he is determined to protect the children. “Since the last heavy snowfall on January 8, we have been providing vaccine to children in schools,” Block Medical Officer Tenzin Norbu, who is posted in Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti which is about 350 km from the state capital Shimla, told IANS over phone.

He said the healthcare workers have to wade through over a feet of snow for hours, or days, to reach remote government schools to vaccinate students, who were also facing problems to reach the school owing to piling of snow on the paths.

Today (January 14) his team left for Losar village, some 50 km from Kaza, to deliver the vaccine.

“We sent the first vaccination team to Losar that has been cut off from the rest of the district owing to heavy snowfall. Our team has to trek several kilometres through over two feet of snow from the nearest roadhead to reach the government school where we are expecting to vaccinate 50-60 children,” Norbu, who feels proud to do this job to serve the community, added.

Remote and tribal communities such as those in this Losar village are among the most vulnerable to the spread of the virus as they are reluctant to go to hospitals owing to a belief that they will get treated automatically with the blessing of a local deity.

Kaza, which is home to 650 children in the age group of 15-18 years, was the first in the state to sanitise the entire block to prevent the spread of the pandemic in 2020. A total of 275 children were vaccinated till January 14.

The picturesque Spiti Valley, a cold desert dotted with tiny hamlets spread over the Himalayan peaks, adjoining Tibet, takes you to a land of Buddhism and virgin nature. It is populated mainly by tribals, who are largely farmers growing barley, potatoes, wheat and black peas.

The climatic conditions of the district are harsh as much of the land forms part of a cold desert where the mercury drops below minus 20 degrees Celsius during winters.

But the health authorities are determined not to let roadblocks come in their way. They plan to take the immunisation programme to new heights by traversing on horseback or even airlifting the vaccine to reach remote habitations like in the previous pulse polio programmes.

Officials told IANS that vaccinating the elderly with a booster dose will be a challenging task as a large population lives in rural areas and ferrying the vaccine there would be a big hurdle.

Health officials say their staff will have to traverse at least three days on foot from the nearest roadheads to the remotest hamlet Bara Bhangal in Kangra district for the vaccination programme.

The journey to Bara Bhangal, part of the Dhauladhar Wildlife Sanctuary that remains cut off from the rest of the world for over six months due to heavy snow, is 65 km from the last village that is connected by road.

Since the entire region is under heavy snow cover, it won’t be possible to send a team there on foot, a health official added. Airlifting the vaccine is the only option.

Bara Bhangal has a population of around 400. During winters, a large population migrates to Bir village in Baijnath tehsil, near Palampur town, some 250 km from state capital Shimla.

Bara Bhangal is accessible on foot through the Thamsar Pass, located at an altitude of 4,700 metres.

Last month Himachal Pradesh became the first state to fully vaccinate 100 per cent of its eligible population against the coronavirus.

Health officials told IANS that at least 30 villages in Lahaul-Spiti and an equal number in Kinnaur are located at altitudes ranging from 9,000 feet to 15,000 feet above mean sea level. The Pangi segment in Chamba district has over a dozen such villages.

Kunnu and Charang villages in Kinnaur’s Pooh sub-division, known for growing peas, are among the remotest habitats where locals have to trudge some 15-20 km to reach a nearby health centre. While Charang has 50 households, Kunnu has 30.

There are several hamlets across Lahaul-Spiti district and Pangi in Chamba district where locals have to trek more than 10 km to reach the health centre.

Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti are part of the sprawling Mandi parliamentary constituency that covers almost two-thirds of the hill state. The Buddhist-dominated districts in the Himalayan terrain, with elevations ranging from 15,000 feet to 20,000 feet above the mean sea level share a porous border with China.

Himachal Pradesh has a target to vaccinate about 357,450 children aged 15-18 years. A total of 4,259 educational institutions would be covered under this campaign which includes 2,801 government, 1,402 private and 56 other educational institutions.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

–IANS
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