Nepalwatch

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2nd of December 2022

Meet the men who vaccinated the people of Mustang while risking their own lives

Kathmandu . For more than seven days, the heavy rain showed no sign of stopping. As a result, floods and landslides  hit most parts of the Himalayan district Manang/Mustang which lies in the Gandaki Province of Nepal in the year 2021.Triggered by heavy monsoon rainfall, these mudslides wreaked several settlements of Manang, destroying scores of houses and displacing hundreds of people.

Lal Bahadur Rokka works in the Kobang Health Post of Mustang as a health assistant from past two years. With a few days notice, he was ordered to bring the vaccines been stored at pharmacy in Lete. Lete is a village development committee in Mustang which is approximately 6.2 km far from Kowang health post.

Despite being an isolated and rural area of Nepal, the Manang /Mustang was not untouched by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Under normal circumstance, it is difficult to transport goods to these remote areas of Nepal due to weak infrastructure and lack of a good road network. While the government was conducting COVID-19 vaccination campaign across Nepal, the situation in this area was much more complex due to lack of infrastructure.

Nevertheless, all people had to be vaccinated. Amid heavy rainfall, vaccinations had to be happen and the vaccines stored in Jomsom had to be brought to the health post no matter the cost. The local people of Kobang and Tukuche were informed that they would be vaccinated on a particular day.  As the government was giving vaccines to the 55 year old above citizens at that particular time, people of that age group had started walking long distances to reach the health posts. Under normal circumstances the vaccine would be delivered at the health post the day before scheduled vaccinations.

However, due to heavy rainfall the river overflowed and the vaccine did not arrive as planned. As the old people were already marking their way to the health posts, health workers from Kobang and Tukuche health post in Mustang were ordered to bring the vaccines stored at health post in Lete. The Chatpang river, which is on the road to Mustang had massively risen up due to the heavy rainfall. No one had the courage to cross it that lies between the village Lete and Kobang.

Unfortunately, there was no alternative road to avoid crossing the river. With no options available, Lal Bahadur Rokka and another health assistant from Tukuche health post Sabin Khatri decided to cross the river and bring the COVID-19 vaccines to the people of Mustang despite the risk.Khatri and Rokka decide to take a motorcycle to bring the vaccines. However, by the time they reached the Chatpang river, the river had risen so much that even  big trucks were unable to cross it. The truck drivers were waiting for hours after being stuck due to the flooded river.

This is when they faced a major dilemma: should they risk their lives to bring the vaccines to those who were expecting them ? After all, some people were waiting for their second vaccine dose and had been informed to come to the health post on a date. The two health workers felt the pressure they were under and wanted to fulfill their responsibilities. Rokka started to think about how to cross the river and bring the life-saving vaccines.

Thasang Village Development Committee helped transporting the vaccines from Lete to Chatpang river via VDC’s bus. It became little easier for Roka that the vaccines was already brought halfway. But there was a river to cross because the vaccine was with Gagan BK, a driver from Thasang VDC. He was holding the box of vaccines on the other side of Chatpang River. As Rokka was on the opposite side of the river, he brought an iron rod that was found near the river. He then placed the vaccine box in iron bar and crossed it.

Even though he did not have safety equipment, Rokka crossed the river with 64 and 43 doses of Covishield vaccines intended to reach the Kobang and Tukuche health posts respectively. The vaccines had reached Jomsom from Kathmandu via Pokhara and later it was brought to Lete from Jomsom as there were no cold storage to store vaccine.

‘I was scared to death,’ said Rokka(24) as he recalls his ordeal. ‘Had I slipped on the rock I was climbing, I would fall straight into the Kaligandaki river. At the same time, I was also afraid of losing the vaccines into the swollen river.’

The situation would have been different if the Chatpang river bridge that has been under construction for the past six years had been completed. The locals always suffer during the rainy season.

‘Normally, it is easy to cross the river,’ says Rokka,’But the scenario is different during the rainy season. Even a small mistake can lead directly to Kaligandaki.’ Kaligandaki is one of the major rivers of Nepal that holds a surface area of 46,300 squared kilometers.

While Rokka was passing the vaccines, Khatri took some photos and videos. After coming back to the health post, Khatri showed the video to another health worker Angila Thakali who works at the Tukuche health post. As soon as she saw the photos and videos she asked Khatri to post them on Facebook. But Khatri refused to do so. He was afraid of the  negative comments that might arise from having risked the vaccines by crossing the river.

Thakali uploaded them to her own tiktok account. The video went viral shortly after it was uploaded. Various media outlets picked it up and people all over the country saw the two men crossing the swollen river to bring the COVID-19 vaccines to their communities. All those involved in this heroic effort were praised.

The online conversation escalated when General Tedros Adhanom shared the video on his own Twitter account.

On July 16, Rokka was honored by the Barbara Foundation(http://barbarafoundation.org/)  for his courageous contribution to the cause of humanity despite not having proper equipment. He was awarded with  835 USD with the prestigious award. At present, everyone in Manang Mustang has been fully vaccinated.

(This story was done on collaboration with vaccines story nepal)

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