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The maroon-robed Buddhist nuns of the 1,000-year-old Drukpa lineage are back in action — this time amid the Covid-19 pandemic with help from their family and friends back to their hometowns. The nuns — known worldwide as the ‘Kung Fu Nuns’ trained with swords, machetes and numchucks for self-defence and more for occupying leadership roles in their nunneries — are now fighting the odds to provide oxygen and medical care to about 2,000 Covid-hit poor families in the Himalayan terrains of Himachal Pradesh and its neighbouring Ladakh.

They are part of the Indian Buddhist tradition that began in the Himalayas. Over the years, they have taken on several impactful humanitarian projects, from cleaning trash to empowering women through sport and education, besides sensitizing locals on environmentally-friendly ways of living.

The nuns, staying and trained at Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Nepal, are now partnering with local volunteers from their hometowns in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh — many of them are family members who belong to the volunteer corps, the Young Drukpa Association, and an international NGO, Live to Love International — to deliver critical supplies by trekking for hours in the thin air.

Live to Love, founded by the Drukpa lineage head, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, has launched a COVID-19 response to serve vulnerable populations, suffering from rapid rates of infection with a little medical infrastructure. The people of Himachal’s Lahaul-Spiti district have requested emergency “oxygen banks”, in addition to preventative equipment and medical kits, Live to Love supervisor Simran Thapliyal told IANS over phone.

“In coordination with the local administration, we strategically placed oxygen banks in a cluster of villages that served as a resource of emergency oxygen supply for patients waiting to be transported to a larger nearby facility in Kullu,” she said. “To explain to the locals about how dangerous the virus is, we have created culturally appropriate pamphlets and banners on its prevention,” she explained.

Responding to the impact of the aid on the locals, who are largely farmers known for growing prized seed potatoes whose history goes back to 1854, Thapliyal said at least 2,000 families in the district were provided critical medical supplies like oximeter, medicine kit, vitamins, steamers and other essential supplies.

Also, all 171 villages in Lahaul-Spiti have been sanitized to contain the virus. Live to Love is now planning to supply items of daily necessity to 3,500-4,000 people, including migrant workers, old-age homes and orphanages in the district and its neighbouring regions.

“We are also setting up oxygen banks throughout Lahaul that will cater to a population of 18,000,” she said. The charity’s on-ground partners like the Young Drukpa Association, for whom the community work is an extension of training, are helping identifying underserved populations as well as delivering the critical aid.

Reports say during the first wave of COVID-19 several villages in Lahaul-Spiti, a cold desert dotted by tiny helmets spread adjoining Tibet, suffered near 100 per cent infection rates, including some of the relatives of the nuns.

This is mainly due to multigenerational families living together under the same roof. Many of the Covid deaths in this region often go unreported due to lack of resources. Doctors say the rugged mountainous region has a long history of health challenges for its 32,000 plus inhabitants.

Owing to the lack of medical infrastructure, 70 per cent of the deaths prior to the pandemic resulted from chronic diseases.

In 2018, 24 per cent of the population suffered from hepatitis-B and a vast majority of the population suffers from co-morbidities. The health services in the region are plagued by shortage of doctors, lack of blood banks, no ultrasound facility and lack of disease-prevention activities.

“Volunteers of Live to Love have provided us pulse oximeters, besides multivitamin tablets and hand sanitizers. Also they are providing sanitary napkins and toiletries for personal hygiene,” Dolma Negi, a vegetable grower in Sissu village, told IANS.

“Besides distributing rice and lentils to the needy, they are sanitizing our nearby habitations and pathways,” she added. According to villagers, every day the maroon-robed nuns trek to villages to help remove the single-use plastic-based medical waste such as disposable face masks and gloves, a new looming threat in the mountains. Besides health advice, they are also educating on menstrual hygiene.

They also distribute rice and lentils during the day and help pitch tents for night shelters.In Ladakh, with the support of Live to Love France more than 18,000 face masks were produced and distributed there. Efforts are underway to provide 4,000 safety kits, 500 disposable oxygen masks, food distribution to 1,000 families and medical equipment to three primary hospitals that will cater to the entire population of Ladakh, said Live to Love supervisor Portia Conrad.

Firm believer that their aims are towering like the Himalayas, a tweet by Kung Fu Nuns says, “These volunteers are our friends and family. They are courageous, resilient and unstoppable. These road conditions will not stop them from delivering much needed kindness and supplies to villages during the pandemic.”

(Vishal Gulati can be reached at vishal.g@ians.in)

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