While people around the world are worried about Covid-19 vaccine, some sections of our society are still waiting for seasonal influenza (flu) vaccination the health ministry launched with so much publicity towards the end of last year.
The ministry’s awareness campaigns for the vaccine penetrated even to the far-flung villages and left residents eagerly waiting to get the jab, but the vaccines did not reach them.
Tsirang dzongkhag with a population of more than 22,000 people received only about 7,000 flu vaccines for the first mass vaccination programme. It covered only four chiwogs.
The story is same in other dzongkhags. Except for the residents living in the catchment areas under the national referral hospital, many dzongkhags received the vaccination only for people who fall in the high-risk population, which includes pregnant mother, health workers, people with comorbidities, elderlies above the age of 65 and children below the age of two.
As a nation that takes pride in providing free health care services, leaving out the rural population from the mass vaccination programme reveals how unequal the distribution of healthcare in the country is.
The health minister, in October last year, shed light on the inequity of getting access to health services and how those with ‘connections’ and at higher social and economic status gets the priority. She pledged to break the chain and ensure that every Bhutanese get the best health service. We have to walk the talk now.
Health officials justify that the nationwide lockdown disrupted the programme and they would continue it beyond the scheduled time because they wanted to ensure the 550,000 flu vaccines purchased for Nu 114 million are not wasted. But will it make sense to vaccinate people after the winter or the flu season is over? Is it justified to leave some sections of the population out of the programme when officials were recommending everyone to take it?
The issue calls for systematic distribution of health services so that every citizen has equal access to it. Every life is important and our people living in remote areas deserve equitable health services. The lockdown should not be an excuse. The ministry should have made arrangements for the vaccine distribution like how the import of essentials was facilitated. Farm and livestock products from rural Bhutan reached all over the country during the lockdown. The vaccine did not reach them.
Besides the unequal distribution of health services, the issue also unveils why people are forced to stay in Thimphu to avail basic services. Issues like rural-urban migration and overpopulation in Thimphu will never be solved if they are convinced that there are more facilities and services, including free health for the urbanites.
Any government or ministry cannot talk high of equitable and quality access to health services if every Bhutanese do not have the same access to healthcare services. The flu season is not over and there is still the opportunity to vaccinate more and prevent the vaccines from going to waste.