The overwhelmed villagers took a while to adjust to the new-found priorities of the administration. Besides, years of ignorance and low literacy rates made them take some time to understand the dangers of the infection and how to resist it.
About 15 boat clinics were deployed by the government for this healthcare outreach initiative and the workers ensured every home, even deep into the island pockets, was visited.
Dr Sultan Mahmud, who is in charge of the Bhandara Char riverine Primary Health Centre (PHC), said, “Covid has prioritized the healthcare needs of the riverine people like never before. Door-to-door awareness campaigns were held and medicines were given to them. Wherever needed, they were put under quarantine.”
When the vaccination drive started, myths surrounding the shots became the biggest hurdle. They feared they would either die or become sterile. Very few people could be convinced to take the vaccines. In the lower Assam districts, vaccines were even returned.
In Bhandara PHC, hardly 10-20 people turned up for the doses in March-April. But a concerted effort was made by village leaders, gram panchayat members, school teachers, ASHA and Anganwadi workers to convince them about the benefits of the vaccine.
Mahmud said in Bongaigaon district the vaccines are now being dispatched to even the sub-centres, the micro-level health centres in villages, as large crowds emerged for getting inoculated in district hospitals. “In my hospital, around 150 people are getting vaccinated every day. Since our hospital is ravaged by the waters of Aai and Manah rivers, the target is to vaccinate the maximum number of people before the floods take a devastating turn this monsoon,” he added.
Bhaswati Khaund Goswami, communications officer at the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), which is offering boat clinic services in coordination with the National Health Mission in Assam, said, “The geographical isolation, insular location, low literacy rates and poor economic conditions made them shun the vaccine. The distance they have to travel to reach a health centre through the water is another deterrent.”
The Bongaigaon district in lower Assam has seen several mega vaccination camps near the Char areas recently, where a large number of people were seen queueing up for vaccines.
In Assam, the virus did not spare the people on the island of Majuli, the land of Satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) in upper Assam. The real challenge here was to make the Mishing tribes, living in the surrounding riverine belt, aware of the deadly virus. “It was only after the boat clinics provided constant awareness sessions that a distinct behavioral change was noticed. Regular awareness was given on the need to maintain physical distance, washing hands and use of masks,” said Riturekha Baruah, district programme officer (DPO), Majuli Boat Clinic.
Roton Mili from Gopal chuk sapori of Majuli was working as a labour in Arunachal Pradesh. Upon arriving home, he did not want to follow Covid rules and go for home quarantine. He was roaming everywhere. It was ASHA worker Rumi Doley, who informed the health team of the Majuli Boat Clinic and immediately community worker Jadumoni Hazarika went to counsel him. The Lakhimpur Boat Clinic team recently organized Covid vaccination camps at Pavobhabhekeli and Kaniajan villages to vaccinate 400 dwellers.