The hillside villages of Boniyar tehsil in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district are mounting a spirited defence against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), spearheaded by a team of medical officers that is visiting these remote areas near the India-Pakistan border and setting up camps there to carry out vaccination drives.
Online booking of vaccination slots is not required in these localities that have poor internet connectivity, as health workers are traversing the hilly terrain every day to reach out directly to beneficiaries aged 45 years and above.
“In a way, it is a role reversal. We are seeking them, instead of them looking for us. But we don’t mind as long as people are getting vaccinated,” Dr Parvez Masoodi, Boniyar’s block medical officer, told News 18 near the local hospital.
Every morning, small teams of three to four men and women — in white aprons and carrying medical kits — would gather outside the old and frail building of the Boniyar health centre. On their way to the villages tucked into the Himalayas, they would climb the hills that stand in the backdrop of a smoky white skyline at the Uri border.
Over the past three months, this has been the routine for the medical staff. The drill is tough, but their zeal to vaccinate all eligible beneficiaries is what gets them going.
Of the 15,000 people who fall in the age group of 45 and above, 98% people have taken the first dose and the rest will be covered by this week, officials said. Almost all health care and frontline workers and police and paramilitary men are fully inoculated.
Dr Masoodi and his team started vaccinating the 18+ group on Tuesday, after the Boniyar hospital received fresh supplies. The team erected a tent at Boniyar’s main market, appealing to people to take the shot. More such makeshift sites will be opened with more supplies coming in.
“We received 1,000 doses of Covishield for the above 18+ age group yesterday (Monday)…we are told to first vaccinate co-morbid people falling in the 18-44 group, vendors, transporters, tourism players, judicial officials and journalists,” Dr Masoodi said. There are about 26,000 people in the 18+ category in the area.
When the vaccination drive began in January, people were reluctant to take the shot, Dr Masoodi recalled. “So, instead of waiting (for beneficiaries to turn up), we decided to take the first step (by directly reaching out to them),” he said.
“We have been knocking at their doors, seeking information about their age, occupation and morbidities,” he added.
The villages in these areas, barring a very few, are perched high in the hills, and can be accessed only though narrow, boulder-and-mud pathways. Some of them, such as Barnate, sit at the cliff, appearing that they would fall off the moment there is a strong wind. Others are nestled in the mountain lap surrounded by vast swathes of maize crop.
In these hills, close to the Line of Control (LoC), logging on to the government’s CoWin platform to book vaccination appointments is next to impossible thanks to erratic internet connectivity.
“The higher reaches with no road connectivity remain out of bounds for months together. Forget internet, there is no electricity available during that period,” said Mohammad Sidiq, a villager.
Dr Masoodi said it was initially difficult to convince villagers to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) spelt out by the administration to fight Covid-19, or the importance of getting vaccinated.
“Not many people are educated in the villages. We roped in Imams, influential leaders and social workers to convince villagers to take the jab,” he said.
Dr Masoodi said his team of doctors, paramedics, vaccinators and ambulance drivers were working in mission mode. He made a special mention of ambulance driver Mohammad Saleem Khan, saying he had volunteered to ferry all Covid-19 patients in the tehsil if they required specialised treatment in Baramulla or Srinagar.
“My team members have been at it all along. In the second wave of the pandemic, they just kept going stronger despite the higher risks,” Dr Masoodi said.
Khan, who draws a salary of Rs 7,000 a month after 17 years in the health department, sounded upbeat despite working relentlessly in the face of adversities. “We hope we will achieve the target of full vaccination in a short time. I haven’t taken an off since the outbreak began,” he said.
Since the onset of the pandemic, 670 patients have been infected in Boniyar. Of them, 580 have recovered, while 23 died. There are 67 active cases in the area. Four fatalities have taken place in the ongoing second wave. Several of those infected are in home quarantine under strict monitoring of the Boniyar hospital staff.