Nepal struggles to contain an explosion in Covid-19 cases, as fears grow that the situation in the Himalayan country will be as bad, if not worse, than in neighboring India, with which it shares a long border and porous.
Following warnings from health officials earlier this week that the country was on the verge of losing control of its epidemic, Nepal appealed for urgent international assistance.
As the country reported its highest daily toll of new infections – 9,070 – Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who has come under fire for his handling of the crisis, has called on the military to help manage the emergency facilities to relieve pressure on the health system.
With vaccines running out and hospitals overwhelmed, severe outbreaks have hit both the capital, Kathmandu, as well as the southwest and west of the country. The national positivity rate – the percentage of tests that come back positive – is reported to be a staggering 47%. The rates are even higher in some places.
Earlier this week, Oli appealed to the international community for vaccines, with officials warning those who had already received a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine urgently needed second injections.
The government’s random vaccination campaign, with people queuing for hours in the capital, has been accused of spreading the disease.
Amid new lockdowns and the cancellation of most international flights, travelers spoke of checkpoints in Kathmandu en route to the airport.
One of the worst affected areas outside of Kathmandu was the town of Nepalgunj in Banke district, near the border with the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which saw a sudden influx of thousands of migrant workers. Nepalese returning from India before closing. from the border between the two countries.
“We must act now and we must act quickly to have any hope of containing this human catastrophe,” said Alexander Matheou, Asia-Pacific director of the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Netra Prasad Timsina, President of the Nepal Red Cross Society, said: “What is happening in India right now is a horrific glimpse into the future of Nepal if we cannot contain this latest wave of Covid which is more lives per minute. ”
Nripendra Khatri, Catholic Relief Services, described the situation and challenges hindering Nepal’s response to the crisis.
“In Kathmandu, many people stay at home due to the speed at which the virus is spreading. At the same time, there are long queues at hospitals and pharmacies.
“Due to the lockdown in major cities, access to transport and medicine is also affected. Cremation centers across the country fill up quickly and family members are unable to perform the final rites properly.
“Nepal is a difficult place for logistics, especially for specialized medical equipment. Our country is landlocked and supplies often come from India by land, but right now India needs all of its medical equipment.
“This means everything has to go through the airports, and all commercial flights have been suspended except for two flights a week to Delhi, India. Once the supplies arrive in Kathmandu, they must be distributed – across a land of mountains.
He added: “Many places are only accessible on dirt roads or on foot. Responding to this crisis and ensuring that remote villages have access to tests and supplies will be a colossal undertaking. “
With fewer doctors per capita than India and a much weaker health system, cases in Nepal over the past month have risen from around 100 a day to over 8,000.
The country of about 30 million people has only about 1,600 intensive care beds and fewer than 600 ventilators for its population. There are 0.7 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants, a lower rate than in India.
Like India, the Nepalese government has allowed several major religious festivals to take place, including Pahan Charhe, which has helped spread the disease.
Reports in the Nepalese-speaking media alleged that the government’s late and opaque attempts to procure vaccines from the Serum Institute of India were carried out through middlemen in exchange for hefty commissions.
Most government-run hospitals are overcrowded and many poorer people cannot afford private care.
“It’s like we’re in a war zone,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, head of the clinical research unit at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Diseases Hospital in Teku, told the Kathmandu Post, adding that patients were treated on the ground and in the yard.
Clearly signaling the crisis, Nepal’s health ministry admitted in a statement last week that it was losing control of the situation. “As the number of infections has increased beyond the control of the health system, it has become difficult to provide hospital beds for care.”