The Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Siberia is one of the few remaining places on Earth where a nomadic people maintain a traditional culture. On the tundra, the Nenets, an indigenous minority in the Russian North, follow a lifestyle that is shaped by the seasonal migration of reindeer herds they herd.
While Covid halted travel in most parts of the world, Yamal’s Nenets kept going. From December to April, shepherds station their camps and graze their reindeer in the Nadimsky District, an area of about 40,000 square miles at the base of the Yamal Peninsula and centered on the town of Nadim. In mid-April they begin a season of nomads “Kasalni”, who travel about 400 miles to the peninsula with their herds and camp 30 to 100 times during the year.
But the pandemic has reached here as well. More than 100 new cases of corona virus are being registered in the area every day, as well as three to five deaths among infected patients.
“We learned about the coronavirus from TV, and most of the sick people were in cities and towns,” Ivan Khudi, a reindeer herder, said. “This trouble may have sidelined us because of our distance from civilization. For example, I have been in ‘self-isolation’ for 61 years since I was born.”
Now vaccination has arrived. Many shepherds pitch their camps – small groups of chums, traditional tents somewhat resembling Native American tepees and equipped with electric generators and satellite dishes connected to Russian TV stations – along a snow-covered highway, Which runs without any turns or exits, 200 miles between Nadeem and Salekhard. Medical buses with doctors and nurses ply along the highway, stopping at suitable points to vaccinate willing shepherds. More than 135,000 people in Yamal have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, which includes about 56 percent of eligible adults.
In late February, a vaccination center was set up a short distance from Mr. Khudi’s camp. The site included several mobile medical units. In one, a medical inspection was being done; In others, vaccination. Nearby, in tarpaulin tents, tundra residents filled out questionnaires and, after vaccination, sipped hot tea.
“Will they bring petrol?” a man asked. Fuel is of tremendous value to nomadic people, and sometimes gasoline sales points are organized nearby. A pediatrician was examining the children next to the vaccination site. Tundra residents often do not have the opportunity to bring their child to the doctor, so the presence of a pediatrician is also a draw.
Vaccination is not unfamiliar to shepherds. In August 2016, an unusual heat wave caused an anthrax outbreak in Yamal, killing 2,000 reindeer and one boy, and hospitalizing dozens more. Since then every March, reindeer and people in Yamal are vaccinated against the disease.
Some shepherds at the Covid vaccination site were calm at the idea of getting shots. “We live in the tundra,” said one person. “Why do we need this? I brought my wife to be vaccinated, but I will not be vaccinated myself.
Still, by the end of the day, dozens of people had been vaccinated. The medics went back to Nadim in the evening, to go the next day to another point on the Tundra Highway.
“We are conducting extensive explanatory work among the residents of the tundra,” said a nurse from Nadim. “But there are still many people who are not eager to be vaccinated, and it is very difficult to reverse this situation.”