Greetings and apologies that it is so long since we were able to write to you with this update.
New Hope India people in leprosy colonies who we support and Tribal Kondh Dongria communities and all at New Hope have been affected by this pandemic that has caused the world to ‘sigh in disbelief’. In India I have never felt such fear and sadness, for our culture not be be able to attend ‘last rites’ is – ‘shame’! Lockdowns have challenged us and yet we had daring staff that for months got food supplies to remote leprosy colonies. The irony that many leprosy patients go out to beg to survive and the lockdown kept them in their colonies. 5 major colonies literally survived by our ‘food support’ alone made possible by support was donors in the United Kingdom, it continues even today. We have an obligation also still to support many aged Kondh Dongria women. We are but one piece of a jumbled up not fitting together jig saw puzzle at this time! Over the years many people we help have smiled and laughed when we have visited them to give a Love Bundle. This time it was different – they cried with joy that their actual survival was with us. The pressure on our staff and finances were stretched, BUT faith overcomes such challenges – It’s like a ‘Bollywood movie’ that 6 times we used a boat to cross a river in Sambalpur to get food supplies to a leprosy colony during lockdown. (At that time no vaccinations, just masks and sanitising) Not with nice scented lotions but old fashioned surgical spirit!
The situation we found the Kondh Dongria 37 villages was simply horrendous. They are ‘animist (not Hindu) and believed that the Covid was an ‘evil spirit’ aroused by long gone anger ancestors. They simply isolated themselves because they heard that Kondh Dongria families who had shifted from tribal villages to live in town were infected, for this they saw evil. This isolation meant they would not come to weekly markets and sell forest products, their basic survival hand to mouth income. We drained our emergency fund and had a very complicated village by village visits, they came and sat socially distanced and collected essential food materials including for them one essential ‘salt’. The fact that we also gave them soap caused both joy and humour.
The second visits would be a story of frustration and at times angry discussions and heated debates as we went through the red tape of insisting on the Kondh Dongria people having a right to vaccination. Many times we have said “its a left over rule red tape from the British.” That’s true to some extent. BUT we Indians have painted it even more red or not ‘freed’ ourselves of it. Excuses have been fantastic “But they (the Tribal Community) dont have proper door numbers. I will leave it at that. Sadly the division of communities between groups who also live in the Tribal area has not helped. This has caused us to have to work around having different places than our own Community Centre for the Tribal’s and not associated with other communities. We came to a ‘working’ arrangement with the local health department which although hard and almost impractical had to go along with to achieve the real goal. That staff spent days tracking up and down to different location with all that is needed to ensure safe immunization was not easy.
Covid Immunization Battle
We spent days planning how to start the immunization that fitted in with the Government rules, the social disparity between communities and the sheer difficulty of getting aged in the hills at the far end of the tribal hill forest area. So thankful to the Village Women Traditional midwives and our staff.
I say humbly that without New Hope Rural Leprosy Trust and my own long association with the community and proudly I say with the support of one remarkable Tribal woman who started with New Hope and is now an elected woman on the District Council, or the immunization would not have happened. The fruit of many years of input with the Traditional Birth Attendants also paid off with their determination to ensure all people co-ordinated with the tight schedule needed to cover the maximum number of people. These are women who moved away from using unsterile knives to ‘cut the umbilical cord and a process that for generations was the root cause of Infant and Maternal Morbidity. The same women who helped us implement Iodized salt as opposed to traditional rock salt. It changed the high thyroid rate among women in particular. The time required for this programme meant that visits often took place during peak times of the Monsoon season with work undertaken during incessant heavy rain. Workers exchanged stories at the end of each long day about tracking down patients who had gone hunting for food and spending time to reassure others who had last minute fears of ‘an injection’ or who had listened to vaccine horror stories!
We have also been able to re start our Eye Care Project. Pre Covid 19 times, New Hope would provide cataract surgery to over 470 patients a year, and we are indebted to our UK supporters for making this possible. During the pandemic our project halted as neither patients nor surgeons could move from their locked down areas, but with gradual easing of restrictions we are already planning our first safe socially distanced ‘cataract camp’. Thanks to the vaccination programme, many younger women came to ask about eye check-ups at the same time as they attended for their immunization.
As we near the end we have had what we call 7 rounds of villages. We have now covered age range 18 and upwards. A few oldies just shrugged in a ‘no’ that we accept. They represent 6% approximately. The population is those above 16 or mature girls (say 14 years range). More females than males and that is good as its women who go to markets more than men. Population target 2860 of this population in the 2,755 have 1st vaccination and 2,127 second vaccination. In the first round 489 had vaccine injections and they were mainly women who came down to the Immunization Centre we had set up in an adjoining village to our Tribal Community Centre. This ensured we had no ‘cross mixing. Then in round 2 and 3 – 799 across all villages 820 persons. In the 3rd round we also started 422 for 2nd Vaccination. This was not easy but helped that more women came down to the Centre and although they didn’t like being ‘touched’ by non Tribals as our mainly Tribal staff were there – it was accepted. I can say that my own and the presence of long time ‘worker’ Sakuntala was a Public Relations for those who came. We always see ‘people, but in percentage 96% covered 1 vaccination and 2nd vaccination 66% and ongoing. November 15th 2021.
This picture show how we worked in co-operation with the District Medical Government staff to ensure the Immunization was ‘fair’ to all communities and candidly the standards was as we have always insisted on with them.