Laxmi Maya Regmi, a 72-year-old Bhutanese refugee, never imagined she’d need a vaccine at her age. However, on March 19, she was one of the first refugees in Beldangi, Nepal, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I didn’t want to miss out on this chance.” After taking her first dose, she exclaimed, “I am very happy now.” “I’d read that people in their eighties and nineties, including me, were more susceptible to the disease. Now I’m at ease.”
Nepal is the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to refugees as part of a national vaccination campaign. The refugees at the settlement were vaccinated as part of the second phase of the vaccination campaign, which began on March 7 and is aimed at people over 65.
The Indian government donated one million doses of Covishield, an India-produced variant of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and the country began its vaccination campaign on January 27. Frontline health employees, sanitation workers, hygiene workers, and security officials were all vaccinated in the first round.
Local authorities, refugee leaders, and security officials established a temporary vaccination center at the refugee settlement, and by the 24th of March, 668 refugees over the age of 65 had received vaccines against the virus across the region. If the government receives new vaccine supplies, more refugees will be enrolled in the vaccination program.
Nearly 20,000 refugees live in Nepal, the majority of whom are Tibetans and Bhutanese who arrived in 1959 and the early 1990s, respectively.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been working closely with other UN organizations and government authorities since the beginning of the pandemic to lobby for the inclusion of refugees in COVID-19 preparedness and response plans.
UNHCR Representative in Nepal Carolin Spannuth Verma said, “The Government of Nepal has shown outstanding leadership for public health responses by including refugees in national vaccination plans and rollout.”
“Protecting the life of all people is our priority”
To date, Nepal has reported 276,750 confirmed COVID cases and 3,027 deaths.
“The risk of COVID-19 is the same for all. It doesn’t matter if you are a refugee or not,” said Shrawan Kumar Timilsina, the Chief District Officer of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal where the country’s two refugee settlements are located. “Protecting the life of all people is our priority.”
Bhakti Prasad Baral, 83, fled Bhutan in 1992 and is now living in Beldangi settlement. He said that he felt “lucky” to get the vaccine.
“It was really difficult to endure what was going on because of the virus,” said the octogenarian, who works as a Hindu priest in his community. “I have no words to thank the Government of Nepal for paying attention to older persons like us.”