Coronavirus | Vaccinators undertake treacherous trek to inoculate tribes in Odisha

Healthcare workers face challenges as COVID-19 cases emerge from PVTGs in State

At a time when people make beeline before vaccinators for getting inoculated across the country, some vaccinators in Odisha’s Rayagada face peculiar challenges — trekking and negotiating slippery hilly roads.

After COVID-19 positive cases emerged from Dongria Kondhs, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), the State government had prioritised to vaccinate the tribe even though it involves tough and treacherous trek to the upper slopes of the steep Niyamgiri hill range where they live.

A team of vaccinators had to trek three kilometres with vaccine carrier boxes to reach Hangabadi PVTG village in Rayagada district on Wednesday. “The challenge does not end after reaching villages, which do not have even pedestrian roads. Vaccinators with help of village headman have to convince Dongria Kondhs, who are still afraid of getting inoculated, to get jab,” said P. Arthanari, Project Director of Odisha PVTG Empowerment and Livelihood Improvement.

Many habitations in Niyamgiri hill range are scattered. Trekking is the only means to reach some villages. Sometime, vaccinators have to reach villages unannounced as there is every chance of fearful tribals fleeing away into forest.

When COVID-19 cases were first detected among Dongria Kondhs in the second week of May, it set the alarm bell ringing in the administration. Dongria Kondhs announced that since they worship Niyamraja, presiding deity of Niyamgiri, nothing would happen to them.

“Dongria Kondhs were initially not ready to get tested for COVID-19. However, after much persuasion, we were able to break the ice. We tested them and motivated them to stay in isolation. The situation is much better now,” said Saroj Kumar Mishra, Rayagada District Collector. The Rayagada district administration had tested 375 Dongria Kondhs and 136 of them had tested positive.

Mr. Mishra said very few among the Dongria Kondhs were left infected following swift action. “The next challenge is to inoculate them. As of now, 834 persons, mostly above 45, belonging to Dongria Kondhs have been vaccinated,” he said. About 10,000 Dongria Kondhs live in 98 villages in Rayagada district.

Odisha has among the largest and most diverse tribal populations in the country. Of the 62 tribal groups residing in Odisha, 13 are recognised as PVTGs.

According to the 2011 Census, Odisha’s share of the country’s total tribal population was 9%. Tribals constitute 22.85% of State’s population. In terms of numbers of its tribal population, Odisha occupies the third position in India. More than 100 villages resided by PVTGs do not have any road.

Similarly, Bonda, another PVTG that lives in Bonda Hills, 3,500 ft above sea level, in Malkangiri district was not spared by COVID-19. After 12 members of Bonda were infected in May, administration announced containment zone and started testing. As of now 950 Bondas have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

Mr. Arthanari said, “PVTGs are being given priority in vaccination. As of now 7,000 members of 12 PVTGs have been vaccinated. We hope to cover all eligible PVTG population under vaccination programme.”

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