Boat ambulances ferry Covid jabs to remote tribal villages in Maharashtra

ArrayNandurbar (Maharashtra) : One cool, lazy weekend afternoon, a tribal boy Vijay Tadavi was busy in a hilly forest, collecting fallen tree branches or twigs for firewood at his tiny dwelling, with the mighty Narmada river quietly flowing more than a kilometre below.Suddenly, he heard the chug of a boat engine and a few minutes later saw the familiar white ‘floating ambulance’ moving towards his small hamlet, so he picked up his load and headed back home.As the boat moored at a safe spot, several villagers also hurried down to greet and cheer a medical team and quickly queued up to get their life-saver Covid-19 vaccination jabs, fresh out of an iced vaccine pack with 10 vials, each with 10 doses.This is a cruise with a difference on the Narmada river that helps protect and save the lives of thousands living in out-of-bounds villages or tribal hamlets near its banks from the scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic.The unique service is carried out by dedicated ‘Boat Ambulances’ in Nandurbar tribal district through which the Narmada flows around 110 kms, including 35 kms along the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra boundary.”This region is very remote, undeveloped owing to thick forests and owing to hilly terrain lacks even basic (kuchcha) roads in most parts.

It can take hours or days for people to reach the nearest Primary Health Centre. So, we decided to deploy the Boat Ambulances for their medicare and now also for vaccination,” Nandurbar District Health Officer Dr Mahendra Chavan told IANS.It was nearly four years ago when one boat ambulance and 3 floating ambulances were launched to deliver medicare to the thousands of tribals living in small villages and tiny hamlets on both banks of the river.However, in early October, the District Health and Education Committee Chairperson Dr Ajit Naik suggested utilising them for an additional purpose to send fully equipped medical teams and conduct Covid-19 vaccination for the people, virtually at their doorsteps, on specific routes.The move was a roaring hit, and in the past nearly 100 days around 10,000 eligible people have got their first jabs, in some 35 villages and 70 hamlets, and more are being covered daily.As the government gradually approves inoculating people below 18 years, besides the due second doses and possibly booster jabs, the ‘vaccination cruises’ up and down the Narmada river will continue for long, say officials.”The boat ambulance has a capacity of up to 15 and the floating ambulances can accommodate around 50 persons… There is an OPD, separate quarters for the male/female staffers, a kitchen, toilets, etc. on board, with doctors like Dr Shivaji Pawar, Dr Bhagwan Khedkar, Dr Anil Patil, Dr Girish Rathod, guiding their teams,” Dr Chavan said.”There are also nurses, drivers, boatmen, helpers and loaders who sail on these expeditions lasting between 12-18 hours depending on the route, but at times, they stop at some location and stay in the boat for 2-3 days due to heavy workload,” Nandurbar Zilla Parishad Vice-President and Shiv Sena leader Ram Raghuvanshi, told IANS.Though encountering resistance and reluctance initially, with gentle counselling by the medicos and special awareness drives, the deprived people slowly accepted the vaccination process.

There were times when a tiny group of villagers brought a couple of senior citizens on cots and hauled them back, grateful and smiling, and on some occasions, the medical team stopped a boat with a few people midway in the river and gave them quick jabs, not missing a single opportunity even in the water!At times, surprises were in store with the locals bringing food or fruits for the medicos, but on some lean days the medical teams kill hours, chit-chat, struggle on their mobiles with poor network, before even a handful of persons step out for their jabs.”Fortunately, the vax drive has passed off very smoothly, without any untoward incidents like crocodile attacks, snake bites or scorpion stings, breakdown of any boats…etc,” smiled Chavan.After the Maharashtra government launched vaccine delivery by drones last month (IANS – Dec. 17), Additional Chief Secretary Dr Pradeep Vyas has indicated that Nandurbar was next for the aerial delivery of vials soon, offering another avenue to reach the people in the back of beyond.




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