Photo courtesy of Think Global Health

After much persuading from friends I finally went to get my Covid vaccine. The whole of last week I tried to book a time and place through e-channelling but it was always full. I live in Wellawatte so I tried the MOH District 5 office in Wellawatte and the MOH District 4 office in Kirula road but never was able to get an appointment online. Then a friend said that there was a walk-in vaccination centre at the Roxy Gardens Community Centre but wanted me to go early morning as he was able to get the jab within two hours, having got there very early. After watching TV footage of people lining up for many hours, the lines being long and crowded, I was worried about getting infected with Covid-19 while being in the line since I have elderly people at home.

Roxy Gardens sounded a good option. I woke up at 4.30 am and got ready, nervous because I was not convinced about taking the Sinopharm vaccine (maybe I am prejudiced!). A cousin of mine wanted to come too, so we reached the centre at 6.10 am. When we walked in there were about 40 people with about 30 chairs and a tent for people to line up. Since the chairs were full, we lined up behind them in the tent maintaining one metre distance.

Around 7 am municipal workers came to sweep the premises. At 7.15 am a smartly dressed young man came into the community centre. He must have been part of the health administration. He got distributed a consent form and a vaccination card. The young man was very polite and kind to everyone and explained how to fill the form, helping elderly people. He assisted a differently abled person to move into the centre. He asked those not from the Wellawatte area to raise their hands. Having noticed a few hands raised, he told us that everyone who had arrived would receive the vaccine. He emphasised that although some people were posting videos in the media claiming that some people don’t get the vaccine, this was a walk-in centre where anyone could come to get vaccinated and that he would not check identity cards; people would be served in the order in which they had arrived. By then the line had grown into three rows of over 200 people. As time passed the line got longer and stretched outside. In some instances the one metre distance became half a metre, irrespective of health officer’s vigilence.

At 7.45 pm the health officer got more assistants to help him to ensure that people maintained the proper distance and when it started drizzling, he was keen that people didn’t get wet and made everyone move to accommodate more. At 8 am two armed military men walked in, inspected the premises, got to the front gate and took charge of letting people into the centre. I spotted some police officers as well. At 8.10 am a military woman officer (a doctor perhaps) drove her car into the centre, followed by a three-wheeler carrying the vaccine box. Within 10 minutes a bus load of military officers came and lined up. In the meantime, a high-ranking army officer carrying a little stick walked in with his guards, to whom all military officers bowed. Other officers at the gate saluted him and waited for his instructions. An army banner was put up behind the vaccination table that had been set up by the health officer and the military (mostly women) took their positions at the front desk while others went into to the centre with their PPE. The health officials were pushed back and the young man who had been vocal until the military arrived and his team became invisible.

I observed a few policemen coming in and standing at the entrance with the military to control the crowd. Thereafter, many posh vehicles came up to the gate and people got down and were ushered into the centre by the military and police. We were in the line for over two and half hours whereas these people did not stay in the line for even a few minutes. Before they started vaccinating those of us who had stayed in the queue, a VIP line was created and immediately they were led to the registration desk without even having to fill forms (forms were filled while they stood in front of the registration desk). Despite feeling wronged no one said anything because the late arrivals and favoured ones were accompanied by either police officers or military men, thus making everyone scared. Some may have even thought that the army was doing a great service and therefore let them get their people the first jabs by jumping the queue.

The health officers could not say anything but just helplessly watched what was unfolding and the young health officer who was very friendly deliberately avoided eye contact with us. Thereafter he came with eight young men and women and told us that these people had stood in the line yesterday for many hours, showed the forms he had given them the previous day with a seal and asked whether they could go in with us. None of us said anything, seeing his plight. At 8.45 pm the top military man said our line could move towards vaccination registration desk. I noticed the front desk was occupied by military officers. They had laptops with WHO stickers on them and asked for our personal details. Once in a while the top military man and his soldiers took people from outside and placed them in between those of us in the line. A few of such unfairly planted ones were not required to fill the forms, whereas we were given forms on arrival and the health officer ensured that we filled them properly, including the consent form. He insisted that we put our phone numbers and addresses, saying that we will be informed when the second dose is ready. All formalities and procedures were only for the lesser mortals while the military men did as they pleased. It started raining so the health officer ensured that people over 60 moved in next to the military-created VIP line. Maybe he felt compelled to show some authority to the military men. We were put in the third line and the top uniformed man pointed his stick at us and asked us to maintain distance, raising his voice to some old people who rushed to the front desk because it had started raining.

I got vaccinated at 9.25 am. I came out and saw many old and feeble people getting drenched. At the entrance, the young health officer was negotiating with a group of uniformed men, this time from the fire station next to the centre. He said, “I know you all need vaccines. These people have been waiting in the line for over four hours, be patient, you will get your vaccine soon”. He very politely asked the military men, who were trying to create another special line, whether they could be sent in later. I moved away quickly because I felt I may say something that could aggravate the tension.

By that time, I saw many hundreds of people waiting in a line that stretched out in the rain. Some people tried to take shelter under trees and the umbrellas of new friends with whom they shared their frustrations. I wished that they could all get the much needed vaccine but I lost hope when I spotted the police letting more posh vehicles into the centre gate, filled with people portraying themselves as important who will keep breaking the rules and taking improper advantage of their connections with the help of uniformed men, displacing the needy, elderly and deserving. This is the virtuous and disciplined society that our president promised and has delivered with the military’s help.