Anger grows in Nepal over Covid vaccine delays
Outrage is growing against India and Britain, despite Nepal’s long association with their militaries, for not responding to the country’s desperate pleas for vaccines as the second wave of Covid-19 ravages the country.
Critics on social media and press commentators have reminded India and Britain that Nepal’s nationals have shed their blood to defend them through wars in the past two centuries, and Nepal’s Rana rulers had been particularly generous in donating money to institutions in British India and the UK itself.
On 15 June, Gurkha veterans in kilts and blowing bagpipes staged a demonstration in the heart of London, with family members carrying banners that read ‘We fight for you. Help us fight Covid-19 in Nepal’, and ‘Gurkha Lives Matter’.
In May, British celebrities, war veterans, mountaineers, public health specialists and vaccine researchers wrote an open letter to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab appealing for emergency medical equipment and vaccines to Nepal. They included Sir Jeremy Farrar, Sarah Gilbert, Andrew Pollard, Sir Chris Bonington, Joanna Lumley, Michael Palin, Gen Sir Sam Cowan, and many others. Gurkha veteran Capt Ram Bahadur Limbu, one of only five living recipients of the Victoria Cross, signed the letter from his home in Kathmandu. A similar appeal was made to the US government through the Covid Alliance for Nepal as far back as early May.
Although Britain, the United States, and other European countries continue to fly in oxygen generators, PPEs and medical equipment to Kathmandu on relief flights, they have not sent what is most needed now: vaccines.
China, on the other hand, has donated 2 million doses of its Sinopharm VeroCell vaccines, and Nepal is poised to order another 4 million jabs from Beijing.
To be sure, Nepal was gifted 1 million doses of the Covishield AstraZeneca by India as early as March as a part of its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, and the government paid an advance to the Serum Institute India for another 2 million doses. Only 1 million were delivered.
Britain also co-funded 2.268 million Covishield vaccine doses to Nepal via the COVAX facility, but only 348,000 were delivered in April before India stopped its export.
Kathmandu has repeatedly made special appeals to New Delhi to at least send the remaining 1 million Covishield doses it paid for, and to Britain to rush supplies so that 1.4 million elderly Nepalis who have been waiting for their second doses now for more than 12 weeks get their jabs before their immunity runs out.
Even though some individual European countries are willing to donate their surplus or unused AstraZeneca vaccines directly to Nepal, the EU has has insisted that it go through the COVAX channel which has pledged 100 million doses by the end of the year. But that would be too late for those waiting for second doses.
Last month, US President Joe Biden announced that 7 million doses will be given to countries in South and Southeast Asia, but there is no mention of when and how many are for Nepal. The G-7 leaders last week pledged another 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines, half of it to be delivered by end-2021. But there are no signs of actual vaccines being readied for shipment to Nepal.
Most Nepalis blame their government for being too busy with internal power struggles to secure adequate vaccines in time. Nepal’s embassies, especially in New Delhi, London and Washington DC have come under special criticism for not being able to convey Nepal’s urgency. However, there is also deep hurt that Nepal is being treated so shabbily in its time of great need, especially by India and Britain.
Of the 400,000 young Nepali men conscripted to fight alongside the British in the two world wars, nearly 50,000 were killed in action. Thousands of Nepali soldiers have died fighting in the Indian Army against Pakistan and China since Indian independence.
Archivist Santosh Khaderi says the sacrifice of Nepali soldiers should be honoured, and also the generosity shown by Nepal’s Rana rulers towards institutions in British India and in the UK in the past.
Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere Rana gifted Rs330,000 (a lot of money in those days) to buy machine guns for its soldiers in British regiments. And in 1914, an emissary of Chandra Shumshere handed over as a ‘personal gift’ to the British War Office in London 31 machine guns for immediate dispatch to the front.
Photos: SANTOSH KHADERI
“Nepal was a poor country, but it is shocking to see how generous its Rana rulers were in supporting the British,” Khaderi says. “They were giving away what was essentially taxes paid by poor Nepalis in the name of diplomacy. It is time for Britain to return the favour.”
Another newspaper clipping from The Toronto World in 1916 reports on a ‘special gift’ of Rs200,000 from the Nepal government and Rs100,000 from the prime minister personally to Viceroy Lord Chelmsford in India as donation towards the British war effort.
Although the second wave appears to be cresting in Nepal, just as it has in India, the disease is still spreading in the community in the remotest parts of the country where there are scanty testing or treatment facilities. Public health officials say the death toll and infection rate is probably three times higher than what is officially reported.
On Friday, 2,768 confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported nationwide, with 44 fatalities. This pushes the total number of deaths so far to 8,641. There are still 65,000 active cases, with most in home isolation, but there are 872 in ICU and 246 on ventilator support.
Next week, the authorities are expected to ease the restrictions on movement in Kathmandu after nearly two months with a ‘smart lockdown’. However, public health experts say that relaxing the rules when only 4% of the population has been vaccinated is sure to mean another surge.
After inoculating the 1.4 million people above 65 who are waiting for their second doses, Nepal needs to vaccinate at least 70% of its adult population for which it will need more than 40 million doses soon.
Former United Nations Under Secretary-General and Nepali diplomat Gyan Chandra Acharya told Nepali Times, “I don’t see a possibility of Nepal getting vaccines from India now, but the West is hoarding more vaccines than it needs. What is stopping them from sending the urgently needed second doses to Nepal?”
What rankles Archivist Khaderi the most is the historical injustice of it all. Having studied Nepal-Britain relations, he is most disappointed at the way Britain is treating Nepal. The UK may be Nepal’s main donor today, but in the past successive Rana prime ministers lavished presents on the British royalty.
Khaderi, who lives in Qatar, has uncovered archival material about Bir Shumshere Rana gifting 14 gold coins to Queen Victoria, even Jang Bahadur, who was the first royalty from the Subcontinent to visit Britain in 1850, showered expensive presents on Queen Victoria. Later, Dev Shumshere contributed Rs15,000 to Queen Victoria’s Memorial Fund.
“It is really disappointing to see Britain and India bring so unwilling to help Nepal despite the sacrifices of our soldiers, the generosity and flattery that our rulers lavished upon them in the past, and to this present day through Gurkha recruitment,” he says.
Indeed, what is most telling for foreign policy analysts is that despite the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and Nepal and the military ties, not a single British prime minister has ever visited Nepal even though British royals have been here.
Public health expert Sameer Mani Dixit of the Centre for Molecular Dynamics says the nature of Nepal’s second wave is changing. While hospitals in Nepal needed oxygen during the peak of the infections in May, now it is vaccines that is most needed.
“Nepal has historical relations with India and the UK, but it is disappointing that particularly Britain has not done much in terms of vaccines. There have been pledges, but when will they get here? In 2023?” he asks. “Why get stuck with COVAX, Britain should send us doses directly since we helped defend their Empire. We are not begging. Nepalis died for Britain, now Britain should help Nepalis live."