Guyana Rotary club brings COVID-19 vaccines to remote communities

Members and government health officials use boats to reach villages deep in the rainforest

by Ryan Hyland

Members of the Rotary Club of Demerara, Guyana, are using their decades of experience in fighting disease while delivering COVID-19 vaccines and aid to a remote region of the South American country. The Indigenous communities there would not otherwise have access to the vaccine and would remain vulnerable to the virus.

The club’s members have conducted crucial medical expeditions that penetrate the densely forested interior of Guyana for nearly 30 years. In doing so, they’ve developed detailed knowledge of the area and the particular needs of the villages in it. The treks have earned the Demerara club a nickname among nearby Rotary clubs: “the bush club.”

When COVID-19 vaccines became available early this year, the club quickly took action, relying on members’ familiarity with the region to plan logistics and coordinate delivery efforts. Focusing on the primarily Indigenous villages of Muritaro and Malali, the club collaborated with the local Ministry of Health and the Civil Defence Commission to immunize villagers. The vaccination teams — made up of club members, doctors, and local nurses — reached the villages by boat, tracing an 8 km (5-mile) stretch of the Demerara River.

Bhageshwar Murli, 2020-21 president of the Demerara club, says that supporting the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities was a natural fit for the club.

“Our club was highly motivated and excited to be involved in the particular effort, since it coincided with what we frequently do as a club,” Murli says.

Members of the Rotary Club of Demerara, Guyana, and government health officials use boats to vaccinate villagers deep in the country’s rainforests.

Photo by Indira Mattai

Because of pandemic travel restrictions, villagers couldn’t go to nearby towns to buy food, clothing, medicine, and other basic necessities. So the club collected and distributed these items as part of the initiative.

The vaccination teams administered COVID-19 shots to 24 residents of Malali and 16 residents of Muritaro. The results may seem modest, but they were hard-won: Lancelot Khan, the club’s service projects chair and the coordinator of the project, says that vaccine hesitancy is an obstacle in these communities.

The club had visited the region in March 2020, when COVID-19 was beginning to spread in South America, to deliver masks and hand sanitizer, Khan says. But it was also Rotary’s historical work in the global effort to eradicate polio that proved to the villagers that it is committed to fighting disease. “Our linkage to these communities and history with our polio efforts gave residents the confidence that Rotary wouldn’t leave them behind when COVID-19 vaccines became available,” he says. “Rotary’s global standing on polio was a big plus.”

During the most recent trip, team members appealed to the village captains (residents who are elected to represent the communities) to be vaccinated. “The captains taking the vaccine showed the confidence necessary to convince others to take it as well,” Khan says.

The team members distributed educational materials about the vaccine, explained its side effects, and answered residents’ questions. They also showed photos of club members getting the shot to demonstrate its safety.

Murli hopes his club’s continued involvement in vaccination campaigns will boost the numbers of people who agree to get the shot.

“We believe that a compelling picture is painted when it is seen that Rotarians are involved with COVID-19 vaccination drives,” Murli says. “We think our efforts can engender an increase in vaccinations and trust.”