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 shaped by the seasonal migration of the reindeer they herd.
While Covid brought travel to a standstill in much of the world, the Nenets of Yamal kept moving. From December to April, the herders set up camps and graze their reindeer in the Nadymski District, an area of approximately 40,000 square miles at the base of the Yamal Peninsula and centered around the town of Nadym. In mid-April, they begin ‘kaslanie’, a season of nomadism, traveling with their herds some 400 miles up the peninsula and moving camp 30 to 100 times a year.
But the pandemic has reached even here. More than 100 new cases of the coronavirus are recorded in the region every day, as are three to five deaths among infected patients.
“We heard about the coronavirus from TV and most of the sick people were in towns and villages,” said Ivan Khudi, a reindeer herder. “We probably missed this problem because of our distance from civilization. For example, I have been in ‘self-isolation’ for 61 years since birth.”
Now the vaccination has arrived. Many herders set up camps—small groups of comrades, traditional tents somewhat like Native American teepees, and equipped with electric generators and satellite dishes tuned to Russian TV stations—along the snow-covered highway that runs for 200 miles with no turns or turns. between Nadym and Salekhard. Medical buses carrying doctors and nurses drive 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, including about 56 percent of eligible adults.
At the end of February, a vaccination point was set up not far from Mr Khudi’s camp. The site consisted of several mobile medical units. In one of these, a medical examination was performed; in others, vaccinations. Nearby, in tarpaulin tents, tundra residents filled out questionnaires and, after being inoculated, drank hot tea.
“Will they bring gasoline?” a man asked. Fuel has tremendous value for nomadic people, and sometimes there are petrol outlets nearby. In an area next to the vaccination center, a pediatrician examined children. Tundra residents do not often have the opportunity to take their child to a doctor, so the presence of a pediatrician is also a draw.
Vaccination is not unknown to the shepherds. In August 2016, an abnormal heat wave sparked an anthrax outbreak in Yamal, killing 2,000 reindeer and one cub and hospitalizing dozens of people. Since then, reindeer and people in Yamal have been vaccinated against the disease every March.
Some shepherds at the Covid vaccination site were cool with the idea of getting the injection. “We live in the tundra,” said one man. “Why do we need this? I took my wife for the vaccination, but I am not getting vaccinated myself.”
Still, by the end of the day, dozens of people had been vaccinated. In the evening the medics drove back to Nadym, to go to another point on the tundra highway the next day.
“We are carrying out colossal explanatory work among the inhabitants of the tundra,” said a nurse from Nadym. “But there are still a lot of people who are not eager to get vaccinated, and this situation is very difficult to turn around.”