This is about events that happened on Tuesday, the 11th of May. We obtained our first doses of the Sinopharm vaccination in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Rumor Has It That Kyrgyzstan Vaccinates Tourists
When I arrived in Bishkek, a travel blogger colleague of mine messaged me and gave me some tips for this country. In turn, she advised me to follow on Instagram and contact a photographer who sorta lives in Bishkek from what I’ve gathered. I messaged him and we stumbled upon the topic of the vaccination effort against COVID-19 in Central Asia. On Thursday, the 6th of May, he mentioned that Kyrgyzstan had started its vaccination campaign, followed by:
“Foreigners can get one, by the way, if you haven’t already; but only Sinopharm“
I was intrigued.
You might remember that over a month ago, I wrote a little ranty post about vaccine tourism, vaccine passports, and the vaccination campaign in the Netherlands. In it, I mentioned my wish to receive Sinopharm specifically. That’s my vaccine preference after thinking about it a lot.
I relayed this message to Jonas. However, he was a little reluctant because he hadn’t heard anything about it in our Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan Facebook groups. He didn’t believe it was true and that it came from some internet rando. I told him this internet rando knows Russian and Kyrgyz so he probably knows what he’s talking about. I sent him some articles from the Kyrgyz news website in English we use—specifically the post that says Sinopharm is for everyone and lists the vaccination centers.
On Friday the 7th, we didn’t talk about getting the vaccine at all. So I ruminated on it by myself. It felt dumb to let an opportunity like this pass me/us by. I felt like shit for not taking action and wanted to move to the next stage of this pandemic.
Not all parts of that vaccine tourism post aged well, but on Saturday the 8th, the WHO approved Sinopharm for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and put its effectiveness at 79%. Jonas saw a post about that in one of the Facebook groups in the morning.
This post was followed by a post from a foreigner who got the vaccine. We read the thread about what documents you need. Kyrgyzstani citizens and residents have a PIN they use for some things – such as future online registration – which is something we obviously don’t have. Jonas asked if it could be done on a tourist visa and the consensus was yes, Kyrgyzstan vaccinates tourists. All you need to bring is your passport and a pen.
Kyrgyzstan’s Brief Sinopharm Vaccination History
Kyrgyzstan had been vaccinating with Sinopharm since March 29th and started with Sputnik V on the 23rd of April. By the 8th of May, they had put some 39.000 shots of Sinopharm and Sputnik V in people’s arms. The Kyrgyz government designated the Russian Sputnik V for people over 65 years of age.
As a mountainous developing country of only 6.5 million people, Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have the capabilities to invent and produce its own vaccines. That’s why it’s part of the COVAX program as a vaccine recipient. COVAX waits for WHO approval before it includes a new vaccine. The WHO hadn’t authorized both Sputnik V and Sinopharm for emergency use when Kyrgyzstan received these first batches. That means that the Kyrgyz government bought these vaccines and they weren’t distributed as part of COVAX. Somewhere in May 2021, Kyrgyzstan is set to receive 504,000 doses of AstraZeneca by way of Serum Institute India (Covishield).
Kyrgyzstan received its ~150,000 single doses of Sinopharm as humanitarian aid from China on the 19th of March 2021. They began vaccinating doctors and teachers nationwide 10 days later. Like every country I’ve heard of, people receive the vaccine on a voluntary basis. Many in those professions didn’t want it. They originally had the plan to do it in three stages:
- Stage 1: doctors and teachers, followed by other government employees
- Stage 2: the elderly and people with chronic illnesses
- And stage 3: everyone
We’re now 44 days in and the campaign has opened up to everyone. I do not know how long a dose of Sinopharm can be stored. Before our vaccination, some 39,000 people had been vaccinated with either Sinopharm or Sputnik V. It either seems like there’s a lot of skepticism/hesitancy towards the Sinopharm vaccine, not enough awareness, or just a general lack of interest in fighting this disease. The fact that Ramadan is still ongoing till the 13th of May might also play a role, despite religious leaders saying that taking a vaccine during the daytime does not mean you broke your fast.
And yet, despite not being a very prosperous country (yet), Kyrgyzstan offers the Sinopharm shot to everyone who wishes it. We still couldn’t really believe it though.
8th of May, Visiting ЦСМ №11
Though it was a Saturday and it was already noon, I said we should visit a ‘Family Medicine Center’ (Центр Семейной Медицины) as it said in the news article:
“Family Medicine Centers No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, the railway clinic and the builders’ clinic carry out vaccination.”
Today, not tomorrow or the day after, I told Jonas. We found a ЦСМ nearby our place (№ 3), but Google Maps said it was closed on Saturday. So we searched for any ЦСМ that would be open today. Jonas chose ЦСМ №11 as a good one, which is close to Sierra Coffee where we had dinner once before, and the Turkish supermarket. So if the answer at the clinic was no, we could at least have lunch nearby and buy groceries. After quickly eating a little something, we both packed our yellow cards, our passports, but no pens. I dressed up in my favorite vaccination shirt and we took a taxi to the clinic.
At the clinic, I felt a little weird. Would we really be able to get a vaccine? We entered the old building with our masks on and behind the corridor were three older ladies. We greeted them multiple times in the plural and polite form, which they appreciated. One sat at a registration desk, so I said “Мы хотим вакцинация Sinópharm. Можно?” to her.
She started talking really fast. She asked me if I knew that Sináfarm is a Китайская (Chinese) vaccine and that it’s not Sputnik V from Russia. I confirmed that Chinese is good and Sinópharm is what we want. She said they don’t have Sinaphárm here, nor any other vaccine; in our hurry to optimize the shopping, lunch, and getting a vaccine, we forgot to check if ЦСМ №11is on the list of clinics that carry out vaccinations. Ooh la la, what a dumb mistake!
But the answer wasn’t “No, you cannot get a vaccine here,” but “No, you cannot get a vaccine here.” This gave me hope. I managed to ask her where to find Sinópharm in Bishkek, and the three ladies told us to go to ЦСМ №7. We googled its location and the registration lady confirmed its location. Lastly, she said “Во вторник.” – on Tuesday. That’s when it’s open for people seeking vaccinations. We thanked them and went on our way to Sierra Coffee.
Is It Ethical For Us to Get Sinopharm (for Free)?
On Sunday and Monday, we prepared a little better for the vaccination. We’ve grown so fond of this city Jonas joked we should become expats here. Jonas found more Sinopharm success stories in the Facebook groups and grew more confident. Yes, it’s for everyone, even tourists. And yes, it’s also completely free of charge. I decided I would want to donate to a Kyrgyz healthcare organization if this was truly the case. But I was still skeptical it would actually happen.
But it remains a question: is it morally wrong for us to get vaccinated in Kyrgyzstan?
One can make a lot of feelings like that go away by just paying a fair price for the vaccine and subsidizing the government to buy more doses. But we understood that it would be free of charge.
Jonas and I are both from wealthy nations that have become that way off the backs of others. We are aware of this and want to avoid exploitation of a country’s healthcare system and hospitality. But it became clear from the other stories that this isn’t a loophole, but policy. This is ‘Stage 3: everyone’.
I do not believe it’s a distribution problem; there are 12 locations in Bishkek and 55 more in other regions. To reach an immunization level of 70%, they will need to vaccinate about 4 million people. The 150,000 doses of Sinopharm plus the 30,000 doses of Sputnik V are good for only a total of 90,000 people to be fully vaccinated.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s worse to waste a perfectly good dose of Sinopharm than to be in the first 1% of people to receive the vaccine ahead of citizens and residents. And we do intend to stay and travel within Kyrgyzstan for a total of about 120 days. Only 28% of people in this news website’s poll say they will definitely get their shots. I hope that this number will increase in Kyrgyzstan and everywhere on earth. I have very little influence, especially here. But if I can do just a little bit in encouraging people to seek out Sinopharm, I think that’s a positive.
If there’d be a long queue for the vaccine out the door, we would not add our bodies to that queue. Needless to say, we wouldn’t push over a local to get vaccinated.
But then again, everyone draws the line right behind their own behavior and choices. I think what we’re doing is okay, but I also understand it if you think it’s wrong on some level. Good thing I’m not asking for your opinion.
11th of May
Preparations + Arrival at ЦСМ №7
The night before, we ate really healthy food and didn’t drink any alcohol. Jonas had read up on how to prepare for a vaccination like this. We awoke really early on Tuesday and ate some porridge for breakfast and drank enough water. Then it was time to put on my vaccination shirt again, pack our yellow card, passports, and some pens, and get a taxi to ЦСМ №7.
A series of pharmacies announced the destination before we got there. It was busy on the street with lots of parked cars. In general, there were quite some people around, but this clinic also does other health care stuff. Who knows what they’re here for.
We walk to the door, where there’s a gate like a metal detector with an empty holder for hand disinfectant. We stand in the gate and it sprays a disinfectant on us.
Inside, I find another lady at a registration desk. This time, she’s in full PPE gear, almost to the same level as the lady who did my PCR test in Malaysia. I ask the same question I did at №11 and again there’s the information that Sinaphárm is Chinese. I say yes, that’s what we want, and the lady points us to a place around the corner. But around the corner, the entry to some stairwell is blocked by a giant poster advertising the vaccination effort against COVID-19. After walking back and forth a few times to wait for better instructions, we eventually find the courage to move the poster to see what’s behind it.
A Small Queue
On the other side, there’s a bench and then an open door to a room that must be the vaccination center. A lady with strawberry-blonde hair in purple scrubs sits behind a desk. After seeing someone else talk to her, we also find the courage to ask. Again, she confirms that they don’t have Sputnik V, only Sinaphárm. I tell her we’re here for the Sinópharm. It has become clear that we’re not from here and that we only speak bare-bones Russian. But that’s not an objection as long as we consent to the Chinese vaccine they have.
This hands-on nurse or doctor asks us to sit on the bench in the hallway next to the woman who asked her before us. We sit there in a neat row till a large group of people comes by asking for Sputnik V. Lady in the purple scrubs manages to work away this crowd in no time and send them home unless they want Sinopharm. The woman in front of us gets called into the registration room.
Then a few single elderly people drop in and Jonas immediately offers his seat to an older man, who takes it. An older woman follows. I get up too and we make our home on the stairwell, trying to be out of the way of everyone. Jonas had read that if you don’t give up your seat voluntarily on the marshrutka, that the elderly ladies will savagely roast you till you move your ass. He has clearly taken note of that and applied it to this situation.
The order of the queue remains in place. Only two people came out of the vaccination registration room so far. After thirty minutes, the doctor in purple with massive organizational skills calls us in.
We sit down at a desk next to another lady who does the registration. The doctor in purple asks around frantically for a переводчик (translator), but I assure her that I understand enough to fill in a form. By now the entire room knows that we’re both foreigners, which is something we’d been nervous about. But either no one seems to give a shit or the authority doctor has sanctioned our presence. Still, drawing less attention would have been preferable.
I fill in the form, which consists of:
- full name according to one’s passport (in Latin script)
- that you understand what you sign up for, to which you have to answer “yes” or “да”
- your full name once again
- date (dd-mm-yy)
Registration lady filled in the other parts like the drug name (“vero cell”). To make sure we could be contacted, she also wrote down my passport number, address, and telephone number on the top of the page. There’s a second page which the registration lady fills in, which says the date of your first shot and the date you have to come for your second shot. There’s also a hand-written phone number there where you can reach out to if we’d have questions or concerns.
It’s only here when I realized I’ve been saying Sinópharm this entire time while people responded with Sinaphárm. I quickly added this to my mental dictionary.
Then it was Jonas’ turn to fill in the same forms.
We both received a small business card saying “Let’s beat COVID-19” on the front. On the back, it said my name again (which only fit partially) and it had space for info about the type of vaccine, the date of reception, the batch number, and the clinic name.
We’d grabbed our yellow cards as well with the hope to get the same data entered in the original vaccination passport. Doc in purple picked up on this and looked at the booklet. She said that after our second vaccine, we’d need to visit her началник (boss) to get it transcribed into our yellow cards. We’re in complete awe at this woman who really knows her stuff. Getting it put in the yellow card and perhaps even notarized is a very important step for us.
The lead doc told us that we were with three other people in a group of five. I think that has to do with getting five doses from one bottle, but I’m not sure. We waited on a different bench till it was our time.
The Sinopharm Shot + 15 Minutes of Observation
Once we were called, we first had to sit with a doctor who asked questions about our health and then took notes. This is really where my Russian ran out, but we figured it out with the help of the tools on the table. The main concerns were oxygen saturation and blood pressure. I said everything was good with me. She still put one of those saturation measuring things on my finger to double-check and then said I was healthy. She also asked if I’d had COVID-19 before, which I don’t think I have. Same for Jonas, but when his saturation wasn’t easy to measure he needed another finger thingy that also measured his blood pressure somehow. Afterward, the doctor said that Jonas’ health is okay, but mine is better.
Then we were shuttled to the room next door, which is the vaccination station. I asked the doctor in purple if we could take photos and videos. She said that was okay. Jonas took my phone to take photos while I sat down on the bed and lifted up the sleeve of my vaccination shirt. There were two doctors in the room, one with the vaccines and needles and the other at a desk with paperwork. I had to share my date of birth once again and I looked over to my arm and I was already receiving the shot. I didn’t feel a thing. The needle is so thin and tiny.
After receiving the shot, I still had to answer some questions to finalize the paperwork. I’d handed over my tiny empty vaccination card and received it back with the info filled in. I thanked all the women and then it was Jonas’ turn. I filmed his vaccination, as he requested for proof in case we’d go to a country that accepts vaccinated travelers but doesn’t believe Kyrgyzstan is a country with healthcare. In a brief moment of peace, I saw an opportunity to ask the doctor in purple scrubs for her name: Tanya.
After proper introductions, it was time to go into observation. The sequence of rooms makes complete sense by now. We sat together on a bed and Tanya told us to sit here for 15 minutes to wait for allergic reactions. After 17 minutes (Jonas couldn’t wait), we didn’t have any reactions and we were called up and we could go home. We thanked Tanya a thousand times and she asked for our vaccination card one last time. She said that on the first of June, we should come back here for our second shot. Not elsewhere.
That’s good to know because then we can plan around our Issyk-Kul trip so we’re back on time in Bishkek for the second dose.
Back Home + Side Effects Day 1
We took the back exit/entrance of the building to leave. That’s supposedly where we should have entered. There are signs there that say they don’t have Sputnik V but do have Sinopharm for everyone. I wonder why so many people still tried to get Sputnik V when it’s clearly not here. There was also a tent with benches for people to wait, presumably to form a queue before receiving the vaccine. There were maybe three people eligible for a vaccine sitting there.
Our Yandex taxi came to pick us up and drove us back home. I texted my family that I’d received my first round, which came as a surprise. After taking our minds off it by watching some Netflix, we were quite hungry. At this point and didn’t feel a single thing except for pain at the injection site. We decided to go to our nearby Navat for some glass noodles and plov and talked over our experiences with some tea.
But after ordering, I couldn’t muster anymore Russian for today. So when our plates were picked up and the lady asked me if I liked the food, I just stared at her blankly until she’d gone. This was very embarrassing.
At home again, I took a nap while Jonas played some game. I rolled over on my left arm once, which was a mistake. Otherwise, I felt nothing at all.
We read the news and learned that the Kyrgyz government will make the Sputnik V vaccine paid for anyone under 65. Good thing we didn’t want Sputnik V. It will cost about US$20 per full course (two doses) if you’re young and have such a preference. Worldwide it seems that many people want what’s either not available (yet) or very scarce.
In the evening, we made a wonky khachapuri Adjaruli (we had the wrong dough). Perhaps we’re extra hungry after the vaccine? Could that be the case? No alcohol with the cheese bread, per the recommendation of the internet.
Side Effects Day 2
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
My arm feels normal. It feels like it happened a week ago. That’s why I Googled if it’s okay to drink a beer after a COVID-19 vaccine. The Kyrgyz websites say stay away from it for three days. The US-based websites say shit like “a celebratory drink or two is totally fine”. Sing with me: 🎼 Healthcare is cultural 🎶
Side Effects Day 3
Uhh, nothing? We really didn’t notice anything. Am I jinxing it by saying that at this point I’m not expecting to feel anything from it, at least till the second dose?