Home Stories Bridging the Gap: Sikkim’s Health and Wellness Centres as Vital Links in Climate-Resilient Care

Bridging the Gap: Sikkim’s Health and Wellness Centres as Vital Links in Climate-Resilient Care

In the heart of the Himalayas, where nature’s beauty weaves a tapestry of serenity, lies Sikkim—the crown jewel of the Northeast. Its landscapes, adorned with verdant valleys and snowy peaks, paint a serene portrait of life. But amidst this beauty, a sudden calamity struck, changing the lives of the people.

It was a day like any other when Sonamkit Lepcha, the Community Health Officer (CHO), at Lingdong SHC-HWC, North Sikkim, embarked on her usual journey to provide medical aid to the community, unaware of the trials that awaited her. Little did she know, the upcoming days would demand more courage, resilience, and compassion than ever before.

The tranquil flow of the Teesta River suddenly transformed into a turbulent force, engulfing bridges, the Chungthang Dam, and vast areas of villages and towns in North Sikkim. This calamity, accompanied by cloudburst triggered a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, sent shockwaves through the region, impacting thousands of individuals. The aftermath of the floods was heavy silt, stagnant water, decomposing corpses, and a horde of airborne and water borne diseases.

There was no power for days. During nights we could hear the gurgling sound from the river, as it is flowing forcefully- and would vanish everything,”

Sonamkit recalled.

Undeterred by the chaos, Sonamkit made her way to the HWC, her family, though worried for her safety, understanding her unwavering commitment to her community. The usual path had vanished under the flood, leaving only water in sight.

That day, it took me more than 2 hours to reach the HWC. The pathway had totally vanished. I somehow managed to walk down from the steep, slippery hills. It was incredibly difficult during heavy rainfall, even more so in this flood situation,”

shared the dedicated Community Health Officer.

Arriving at the HWC, the call for action came swiftly from Medical Officer in Charge (MOIC). They were to establish a relief camp at Bring Bong, an outpost accessible only through the hardest-hit area, Chungthang Dam. It was a daunting challenge, accessible only through adversity. Sonmakit led the charge, supported by a team of resilient individuals—a Multipurpose Health Worker (Male), a steadfast security guard, and a dedicated attendant. They were armed with knowledge, honed through training conducted by USAID health system strengthening project NISHTHA, implemented by Jhpiego, that expanded their capacity to handle medical emergencies. Each member of the team embraced the responsibility with unwavering dedication, fueled by the belief that their training would be the beacon guiding them through the storm.

Arriving at Bring Bong, the healthcare team swiftly provided medical support not only at the base relief camp but also halfway through the journey, where tourists and locals alike were guided down steep hills to safety. The weather was relentless, heavy rain impairing visibility, winds howling at formidable speeds.

People, including children and the elderly, suffered from various medical needs exacerbated by the flood. But, Sonmakit and her team provided all the support at every stage. Amidst the chaos, they even tended to a tourist who had recently undergone knee surgery, ensuring his safe descent to the relief camp. Sonamkit’s team braved adverse conditions, offering not just physical aid but also lending a comforting hand to calm the horrified and shocked people affected by the floods.

The team walked halfway with the people coming down to the relief camp. The team used to keep all the first-aid kit handy. We provided ORS water at intervals and gave them some to carry with them. Pain relief sprays and other necessary medical assistance were also given,”

recounted Sonamkit.

As the days unfolded, the community rallied together. The panchayat and local communities established aid stations along the pathways, offering food and water to those traversing the difficult terrain. The children, too, played a part, clearing debris to ease the passage for others.

The swift medical aid provided by the healthcare providers saved us,”

echoing the sentiments of many people.

Eventually, the waters receded, connectivity was restored, and normalcy returned. The relief efforts, the selflessness of the community, and the unwavering dedication of the HWC team had not just saved lives but had also forged an unbreakable bond between the people and the Health and Wellness Centre.

In the face of adversity, the HWCs in Sikkim transformed into hubs of care, offering a wide array of services that extended far beyond mere medical check-ups, setting up 16 camps across the affected areas. With a team of 60 passionate CHOs, these centres became lifelines for those grappling with the aftermath of the flood. To enhance the response efforts, USAID-NISHTHA/Jhpiego collaborated with the state, not only assisting in health control room operations for monitoring and reporting all health-related activities but also supplying water testing kits to assist frontline workers in managing waterborne diseases in flood-affected areas.

The HWC team conducted general health check-ups, provided crucial Antenatal and Postnatal Care, and handled emergency cases with unwavering expertise. But their efforts didn’t stop there. Recognizing the toll the flood had taken on people’s mental health, they organized counseling sessions in collaboration with skilled counselors. In the looming threat of vector and waterborne diseases in the aftermath of the flood, the centres became beacons of prevention. They tirelessly conducted awareness sessions on these diseases, educating and empowering the community to safeguard themselves. Yet, despite their best efforts, challenges persisted. A dengue outbreak struck some relief camps, but the unwavering dedication of the healthcare team prevailed.

Through their unwavering commitment and compassionate care, these Health and Wellness Centres not only provided medical aid but became the heart and soul of hope for a community battered by the flood’s fury. In the darkest hours, their resilience and dedication shone brightest, reminding us of the incredible impact that compassion and expertise can have in times of crisis.

The calamity faced by Sikkim vividly underscores the intimate connection between climate change and public health. As our planet experiences more frequent and intense weather events, vulnerable communities like those in Sikkim face heightened risks to their well-being. Climate change not only exacerbates the frequency of natural disasters but also contributes to the spread of infectious diseases, posing a significant threat to public health infrastructure.

Primary health care systems, particularly exemplified by Health and Wellness Centres (HWCs), can play a pivotal role in addressing the health impacts of climate change. These centres, equipped with well-trained healthcare professionals, can proactively respond to the increased prevalence of waterborne and vector-borne diseases, provide essential medical care during emergencies, and offer crucial mental health support to communities grappling with the aftermath of climate-related disasters.

By integrating climate-resilient strategies into primary healthcare, such as awareness campaigns, early warning systems, and community-based interventions, HWCs can serve as key players in building resilience and mitigating the health impacts of climate change. This interconnected approach underscores the need for holistic healthcare systems that address both immediate medical needs and the long-term health challenges stemming from a changing climate.

USAID’s flagship health system strengthening project NISHTHA, implemented by Jhpiego is providing technical support to the National Programme on Climate Change and Human Health at the national level and across 13 states to strengthen the health system’s response to climate change. NISHTHA is working closely with the national and state governments to build green and climate resilient health facilities at primary care level and empower communities with the knowledge and action for addressing impacts of climate change.

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Divya Baliyan – Communications Officer, USAID NISHTHA / Jhpiego

Contributions from:
Kajok Engtipi, Senior Program Officer, USAID NISHTHA/Jhpiego
Harki Tamang, State Program Officer, Family Planning & Reproductive Health, USAID NISHTHA/Jhpiego

Bhawana Regmi, Program Officer, USAID NISHTHA/Jhpiego

Jhpiego believes that when women are healthy, families and communities are strong. We won’t rest until all women and their families—no matter where they live—can access the health care they need to pursue happy and productive lives.

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