How to Get Vaccinated in Central Asia

A couple weeks ago we signed up for the local government’s website for foreigners who want to get vaccinated. We need to travel internationally soon, so we hoped for a speedy reply. Our region has until now had more Covid-19 vaccines available than locals willing to take them. However, we waited and heard nothing. And so we waited some more.

Finally, we took a colleague’s advice and walked our family over to the local government vaccine clinic. Armed with the name of the head doctor and our blue passports, we decided we would try to explain our situation, and see if he could make the system work for us.

We arrived to a bit of a madhouse. Locals had not previously been very eager to get the vaccine. But we are currently experiencing record numbers of cases, and people are beginning to panic. Whatever system had been in place was now clearly overwhelmed. So, we braved the wandering crowds holding cotton balls to their shoulders and wandered up to the second floor. We then asked around until we found the room of the head doctor.

It was packed. In one corner the head doctor and his assistant furiously filled out government forms and proof-of-vaccine cards for a jostling crowd that kept shoving their bodies, IDs, and forms right into their immediate space. Of course, it took us a minute to figure out that this was indeed the head doctor, buried as he was in people and papers.

On the main desk across the small room, used syringes and caps lay scattered among stacks of papers. A middle-aged man was rushing to and from this desk and in and out of the room. He quickly spotted us and called us over.

I tried to explain to him that we had registered online but the system didn’t seem to be working, that we needed to talk to the head doctor, etc. He just shook his head, said that wouldn’t be necessary, and told me to lift my sleeve. Then he vigorously stabbed my shoulder with the Pfizer vaccine. I was both shocked and encouraged. I hadn’t expected to get the first dose done today. But there it was. He then did the same thing for my wife, who yelled in protestation at his no-nonsense stabbing technique. Was the method like any other shot we’ve ever gotten? Not exactly. But it was fast.

The next part, however, was anything but fast. We had to figure out how to jostle through or wait out the crowd that was mobbing the doctor and his assistant. We opted to inch slowly forward and wait it out. I’m still not sure how exactly to be both pushy and polite in this culture. Some locals are able to thread this needle very well. Instead, my government office strategy is to be unmistakably visible, but less pushy than those around me. It usually wins you friends in the end, but the wait can take a toll. It is, if nothing else, good stamina training for exercising the fruits of the Spirit. Yep, I’ve been waiting here for an hour, and that guy just jumped the mob/line because he’s a relative or because he’s just pushy. Gritted teeth… Love, joy, peace, patience…

We were provided some brief entertainment by our mustachioed vaccine-stabber, who at one point was in an animated discussion with others in the crowd as he moved back and forth across the room, used needle in hand, point facing out. He was using his hands to gesture dramatically, as Central Asian men are prone to do (I sometimes feel that our local intonation and body language feels somewhat akin to Italian). We watched with concern and fascination and the tip of the needle repeatedly passed just inches from several different shoulders. Eventually it ended up “safely” on the desk as well.

After about an hour and a half of waiting, standing, sweating, squatting, and making “help us” expressions with our eyes above our masks, we finally got our forms filled out. Names here work differently, with most people’s three names being their given name, their father’s name, and their grandfather’s name. That means we have to be vigilant to make sure important forms get written correctly, in the local fashion if needed for a local office, or in the Western given-middle-family name fashion if needed internationally. Today I caught the doctor getting my wife’s last name wrong just in the nick of time.

In the end we waited so long that my wife had to evacuate with the children in order to get our diabetic middle child some sustenance. But being Central Asia, they had no qualms about me as husband signing the place where my wife’s signature was supposed to go. The doctor and I then discussed the relevant information about our family and the second dose.

When we were finished, I thanked him profusely in the local language for our unexpected chance to get vaccinated, “Dear respected doctor, may your hands be blessed. May both of you not grow weary, and may your bodies be whole.”

For that, the doctor gave me a fist-bump. Then he hollered at the next man pushing in to give him his forms. Ah, Central Asia. You wonderful mess of a place.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

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