Kyrgyzstan's insulin-carrying volunteers cycle past lockdown


Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP)

Kyrgyzstan's coronavirus restrictions may have been relaxed in recent weeks, but 73-year-old diabetes patient Lyudmila Kutenkova isn't yet ready to part ways with the man she calls "my guy".

Her guy -- 50-year-old Talant Akynbekov -- is one of 20 volunteers who began delivering insulin to patients by bicycle when the authorities locked down the capital Bishkek in March to slow the spread of the virus.

Now shops have reopened and buses are back on the road, but vulnerable groups that face a grave health threat if infected still sorely need the volunteer culture the lockdown spawned.

"He is such a wonderful guy, so helpful and kind," Kutenkova gushed after Akynbekov, a fit, lean bike fanatic and cameraman by trade, ran the gauntlet of Bishkek's morning traffic to hand her a brown package containing the vital medicine.

"What would we have done without them?" she asked.

Kutenkova, who lives alone, said that her pension of less than $100 a month is not enough to regularly take taxis to pick up her medicine.

She is also reluctant to gamble with her health on public transport despite new restrictions on passenger numbers and compulsory mask wearing.

"I am one of these at risk ones," she told AFP in the tumbledown courtyard of her Soviet-era apartment building.

The emergence in March of coronavirus cases in Kyrgyzstan -- one of the poorest of the countries that gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union -- created unprecedented challenges for the Central Asian country's underfunded health system.

In addition to chronic shortages of protective equipment, hospitals in the capital lacked the means to bring staff to work as stringent restrictions on movement entered force.

Borrowing fridge space from drinks companies, the country's top endocrinological centre was able to stockpile insulin, which needs to be stored at low temperatures.

But an agreement struck with the state postal company to ensure deliveries in the capital fell apart over lockdown logistics.

- Cyclists 'literally saved us' -

Nazgul Omurkanova, the centre's chief doctor, told AFP that ensuring deliveries for diabetes patients would have been impossible without the 20 bike volunteers -- part of a larger collective that delivered food supplies to pensioners and disabled people.

Armed with documents from the hospital and bright orange vests that helped them pass cumbersome checkpoints, the volunteers delivered up to 70 packages of medicine a day, Omurkanova said.

"We are so thankful to them. They literally saved us," the doctor said.

Kyrgyzstan, a majority Muslim country of six million, has about 800 active coronavirus cases, out of a total of just under 2,000, according to official data.

But health experts caution that testing rates in the country and surrounding region remain low, and a second wave later this year could be devastating.

Omurkanova said the government is scaling up information campaigns about her patients' vulnerability to the virus.

"We need to do as much as possible to safeguard our diabetes patients and elderly citizens. (If we don't) the consequences will be bleak."

For Akynbekov, who cycled 30 to 50 kilometres every day during lockdown, the pandemic's economic crush has meant temporary unemployment -- the government cut funding for new projects at the state film studio where he worked.

But he plans to continue insulin deliveries, he said, and hopes the cyclists' efforts will earn them some space on Bishkek's choked roads.

"It would be good if some of our younger drivers looked out for us more often," Akynbekov said. "We show respect to (motor) transport and we demand that respect in return."