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On Friday, May 28, Biratnagar was gloomy and rainy, forcing most people indoors, and a lockdown in place meant that the roads were empty. But at around noon, a queue of cars began to enter the premises of the City Cinema, a film hall. Locals became concerned, as the cinema hall had been closed down due to the lockdown imposed by the Morang District Administration Office.
Slowly, people began to gather at the gates of the cinema hall in an attempt to find out just what was happening. Rumors quickly began to spread that the city’s top businessmen and those closely affiliated to the incumbent provincial government were going to get vaccinated with the Indian-made Covishield vaccine.
So far, Nepal has only provided Covishield vaccinations to frontline health workers, diplomats, journalists, and the elderly. The Chinese-made Verocell was only given out to residents of the Kathmandu Valley’s three districts and a few surrounding districts.
At a time when over a million elderly people are awaiting their second doses and most of the country still hasn’t received a first dose, rumors of Biratnagar businessmen and others jumping the queue to obtain vaccinations spread like wildfire. City residents quickly gathered in large numbers to protest outside the gates of the cinema hall.
“The vaccination program was halted after people started protesting,” said Tajim Ansari, a local who is associated with the student wing of the UCPN (Maoist Centre). “The police had to escort the vehicles of businessmen and health workers because of the protest.”
Ansari said that they would’ve had no problems had the vaccinations been given out to frontliners but they were forced to protest after discovering that cronies of the government were getting the jab.
Health workers deployed at the cinema hall later admitted to journalists from Hamromat.com, a local Biratnagar news portal, that they had been dispatched by Province 1’s Social Development Ministry to provide vaccinations to 300 people. However, only 150 jabs were given as the protest halted the vaccination drive.
However, Social Development Minister Usha Kala Rai told Koshi Online, another local news portal, that she was unaware of the incident and was ordering a probe.
The Record also reached out to numerous local officials, all of whom professed ignorance. Morang Chief District Officer Kosh Hari Niraula too said that he had no idea about what happened at City Cinema, even though he is vaccine coordinator for the district. Ramesh Karki, head of Biratnagar’s Public Health Department, also had the same response.
So did a vaccination drive actually take place at the City Cinema?
The Record reached out to Suyesh Pyakurel, one of the partners of City Cinema, for a comment. Pyakurel’s proximity to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and the ruling CPN-UML is well-known in Biratnagar. His uncle, Suman Raj Pyakurel, was recently appointed parliamentary party leader in the upper house of the federal Parliament. Pyakurel himself is chair of the Morang Chamber of Industries, the biggest organization of the industrialists in the Morang-Sunsari Corridor.
Pyakurel told The Record that he had been approached by the provincial government to conduct a vaccination program on the premises of the cinema hall.
“I provided the space believing that the elderly were going to be given the second dose of the vaccine,” Pyakurel said. “I and my organization have nothing to do with what happened there. Some industrialists might have gotten vaccinated but I myself was not present there.”
Although it hasn’t yet been confirmed that the vaccination drive did take place, Biratnagar locals and politicians from the opposition believe that the ruling UML party was attempting to reward its loyalists.
“From the centre to provincial to local level, it appears that the communist government is not committed to saving the lives and livelihoods of common citizens,” said Suryama Rai, the Nepali Congress whip for Province 1. “It [the government] is busy protecting its cronies. The incident that unfolded at the City Cinema is unforgivable.”
Nepal only last week received 1 million doses of the Chinese Verocell vaccine as a grant from the government of China. These doses are currently being provided to people aged between 60 and 65, who were earlier not eligible for the Indian Covishield vaccine due to a lack of data on how it might affect that particular age group. With the WHO now approving the Verocell vaccine for all age groups, the government has resumed vaccinations. The federal government has yet to decide if more groups will be provided with the vaccine.
Currently, over 1.3 million elderly people above the age of 65, who were vaccinated months ago in March, are awaiting second doses of the Covishield vaccine. So far, 2113080 people have received the first dose of a vaccine while just 691,494 have been fully vaccinated with two doses, according to the Health Ministry.
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