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Explained: Nepal stares at Covid abyss as cases skyrocket by 1200% in weeks

Last month, the little Himalayan nation that has around 31 million people was reporting just about 100 cases a day. Now, that figure is slowly nearing the 10,000-mark.

Written by Rounak Bagchi , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: May 11, 2021 8:02:42 am
In this May 5, 2021, file photo, Nepalese men in personal protective suits cremate the bodies of COVID-19 victims while others extend the crematorium as the number of deaths rise near Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. (AP)

1200% — this is the rate at which Covid-19 infections have risen in Nepal in just a matter of weeks.

Last month, the little Himalayan nation that has around 31 million people was reporting just about 100 cases a day. Now, that figure is slowly nearing the 10,000-mark. The country is reporting about 20 cases per 100,000 people a day — numbers that are similar to what India was reporting a week back.

Last weekend, 44% of Nepal’s Covid tests came back positive, according to government figures quoted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as it warned of an impending crisis.

With cases skyrocketing and vaccines running short, hospitals are overwhelmed as the country struggles to deal with an explosion in cases.

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The Second Wave

The rapid spread of the virus has led to fears that the country is on the verge of a crisis that is as devastating as India’s, if not worse. Experts believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg as the high positivity rate shows that Nepal isn’t detecting nearly enough cases.

The country’s fragile healthcare system is currently under immense pressure to deal with the crisis.

According to the government’s Covid-19 response plan from last May, the country only has 1,595 intensive care beds and 480 ventilators for around 30 million people.

It also has a shortage of doctors, with just 0.7 physicians per 100,000 people, according to World Bank data — less than India’s 0.9. Health workers on long-term leave are being called back to help manage the crisis, while the Nepal Army directed retired medical staff to stand ready to be recalled.

As of May 8, there were hospital bed shortages in 22 of the country’s 77 districts, according to Nepal’s Health Emergency Operation Centre.

Nepal’s ministry of health even conceded 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 tough to provide hospital beds for care,” it had said.

Added to this, Nepal has a low vaccination rate. As of the end of last month, 7.2% of the population had received at least one vaccine dose.

What led to the crisis?

Mass public events, including festivals, political gatherings and weddings, have allowed cases to spread, along with general public complacency and slow government action.

The crisis started building up from April when Prime Minister KP Oli had come out with a homemade remedy for the novel coronavirus. He had said that the virus can be treated by gargling with guava leaves. This had come after he had stated that Nepalis have very strong immunity because they take in a lot of spices.

People started coming out in large numbers for religious gatherings. They even travelled to India to take part in the Kumbh Mela. This included Nepal’s former King Gyanendra Shah and Queen Komal Shah, who were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on their return to Nepal, according to a statement from Norvic International Hospital in Kathmandu.

Around the same time, thousands of Nepalis gathered in the capital to celebrate the major religious festival Pahan Charhe. Others came together in Bhaktapur, a nearby city to celebrate Bisket Jatra, despite authorities ordering them not to, according to local media. One placard in support of the event read: “Our festival is dearer than our lives to us.”

On April 24, when the country reported more than 2,400 new cases, Oli was surrounded by local media as he inaugurated a new Dharahara to replace a tower destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Five days later, on April 29, when daily cases had doubled to more than 4,800, the government imposed a two-week lockdown in the capital. The following day, the Ministry of Health and Population admitted it was overwhelmed by the crisis.

Some have also gone ahead and blamed India for the crisis, saying New Delhi’s raging second wave has spilled over to Nepal.

The Himalayan nation shares an open border with India and Nepalis don’t need to show their passport or ID card to enter their country. Since many Nepali people have businesses in India, and vice versa, meaning cross-border traffic is high.

A reason for people to blame India for Nepal’s crisis is that one of the worst-hit areas outside Kathmandu has been the city of Nepalgunj in the Banke district which is very close to the border with Uttar Pradesh. The district has witnessed a sudden influx of thousands of Nepali migrant workers from India ahead of the closure of the border between the two countries.

Experts have also criticised the government for opening up the country without evaluating the crisis within. The KP Oli government’s decision to allow people to continue to climb its Himalayan peaks as a vicious Covid-19 wave swept the country was dealt a further blow after 19 more climbers tested positive for the virus.

Last month it was reported that the pandemic had reached Everest base camp and though officials later denied it, climbers have reported a wave of infections that were being covered up. Nepal issued climbing permits to 740 climbers this season, including 408 for Everest.

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What has the government done and the road ahead

The coming few weeks will be crucial for Nepal, experts have said.

Last Thursday, authorities imposed a two-week lockdown in Kathmandu, but before that went into force, many migrant workers returned home. Villages often have large numbers of elderly people and limited healthcare raising fears that migrants might have spread the virus to remote areas.

From May 6, all international flights have been banned, Oli had said in a televised address to the nation. Rules restricting gatherings are in place in 46 of 77 districts.

The Nepal government is also working round the clock to ramp up healthcare infrastructure. Last week, it ordered 20,000 oxygen cylinders from overseas, as demand for medical oxygen tripled, Health Ministry spokesperson Dr Jageshwor Gautam had said. Nepal’s army has started expanding healthcare facilities in areas bordering India to cater to the large number of Nepali workers returning home.

A 200-bed isolation centre is also being set up besides adding 2,000 beds to a facility in Sudurpashchim Province, where officials are reporting a shortage of oxygen gas cylinders.

However, a great challenge remains for the small Himalayan nation as more festivals are approaching. ‘Rato Macchidranath’ festival is due later this month near Kathmandu, although organisers said they will adopt social distancing measures and make masks compulsory, according to state media.

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