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Nepal relaxing lockdown afterall

Finance and Information Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada told a media briefing on Wednesday evening that the Cabinet extended the COVID-19 lockdown till 18 May, but it had also decided to relax rules on manufacturing, industries and banking sectors. 

These would be partially opened with certain restrictions on distancing and health monitoring of workers, and that the decision about opening up would be done in coordination with local governments. 

The industries included in the list are: food production and processing, dairies, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment manufacturers, water supply, brick kilns, livestock and fisheries, feed industries, sugar, tea and LPG. Also to be opened will be noodles industries, bakeries, poultry, dairy, and processing of other agricultural products.

Among the non-food industries to be relaxed are cement, paint, plywood, plastic pipes, sand and crushers, steel and electrical equipment.

However, the following rules apply: factories cannot have more than ten workers in one place at a time, and workers get health check-ups daily. For the time being, workers also need to stay in dorms, and eat in canteens at their workplaces, without coming in contact with local people or family members.

Nepal’s diaspora comes to the rescue

Nepal’s Ambassador to Oman Sarmila Parajuli Dhakal (in sari) in front of the Nepali Airlines Airbus 330 that flew to Muscat on Saturday to fetch 560 oxygen cylinders donated by Nepalis working in the Gulf region. Photo: Nepal Embassy, Oman

Nepal’s migrant workers in West Asia, who were left largely to fend for themselves by their government when the pandemic hit last year, have come to the rescue of their homeland which is being ravaged by a fierce second wave. 

Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf region collectively raised money to rush 560 oxygen cylinders which arrived in Kathmandu on Saturday evening on a Nepal Airlines flight from Muscat. 

Nepal’s hospitals have run out of beds and medical oxygen as the total active cases in the country reached 110,000. On Saturday, 8,167 new cases were recorded, and there were 187 deaths. Many patients are dying while waiting for oxygen. Nearly 8,000 people are undergoing treatment in various hospitals across the country with 1,331 of them in ICU and 370 in ventilator support.

Overseas Nepalis have rushed to raise money and provide material support for the beleaguered healthcare system back home. Saturday’s shipment of cylinders was part of an effort led by the Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) Oman on behalf of the NRNA Middle East and supported by Nepal’s Ambassador to Oman Sarmila Parajuli Dhakal. The Nepal government covered the flight cost.

The total cost to buy the cylinders and send it to Nepal was $64,000.  So far, 187 individuals and organisations have raised close to $12,500 with donations ranging from $3-$1,300 in Oman. Another $28,618 has been raised with contributions from over 50 migrant groups, Nepali businesses and individuals in Qatar. 

“This is part of an NRNA campaign in the Middle East, under the slogan ‘Send oxygen to Nepal and save lives of our relatives’. We recently initiated the effort and expect to raise more funds in the coming days,” says Qatar-based Nepali Kareem Baksh Miya.

The consignment of oxygen cylinders worth $64,000 donated by Nepali workers in West Asia arrived in Kathmandu Airport on 15 May. Photo: Nepal Airlines

Similarly, a little over $10,000 has been raised from 150 Nepalis in Kuwait, “During the first wave, we were so overwhelmed supporting stranded Nepalis in Kuwait that we did not have the bandwidth to focus on Nepal,” says Hom Nath Giri of NRNA NCC Kuwait, who has been stuck in Nepal due to the current flight ban.

Giri likens the current situation to the 2015 earthquake when Nepalis overseas scrambled to support those affected back home. He adds: “But unlike during the earthquake monetary support isn’t sufficient this time, and it has been quite challenging to procure oxygen cylinders due to the increased demand.” 

Similar fundraising initiatives are ongoing in other Gulf states as part of the NRNA campaign. Nepali overseas workers are also already propping up Nepal’s economy with remittances in the nine months this fiscal year 16.5% higher than the same period last year. 

The help from overseas Nepalis this year is in direct contrast to the situation this time last year, when stranded Nepalis in the Gulf pleaded with the Nepal government for repatriation. But they only got lukewarm response, despite often being hailed as the backbone of Nepal’s economy.

Even at the height of the pandemic, officials back home were in disagreement about the eligibility of undocumented migrants unable to afford tickets home. Moreover, the guideline for repatriation support was so complicated only 200 of the documented workers benefited from the scheme. Following their return home last year, despite promises of reintegration, many returnees did not get help. 

Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have extended support to India in their fight against the pandemic. But such help has not been forthcoming to Nepal, and this has been seen as a failure of Nepali diplomacy.

However, Sewa Lamsal at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu says that the government has sent letters to its missions in West Asia with requests for medical equipment, oxygen cylinders, PPEs and other essentials. 

“These things take time to arrange and have been further delayed because of Eid,” she added. “There are positive indications of support. We just don’t have the specific details yet regarding what and when, but it should be sorted out soon. Continuous efforts are underway.”

A senior government official blames inadequate diplomacy and political distractions in Nepal for the lack of urgency in seeking international help. Nepal finally appointed an ambassador to South Korea on Friday after two years, and the government could have reached out to Malaysia, which is among the biggest medical equipment manufacturers in the world and where there are 375,000 Nepali workers. 

He says: “Ambassadors should be able to build strong relationships with governments that go beyond formal exchanges. More often than not, that is not the case because they are political appointments, competence isn’t valued and complacency is seldom punished. More active diplomacy could have gone a long way during this emergency.” 

Patan’s Red God rises

Contrary to last year, Patan’s Machindranath festival concluded with peaceful procession of the rain god’s chariot on Saturday.

In an event attended by limited devotees, volunteers clad in face visors and masks pulled the chariot for 200m. There was heavy presence of security forces.

This is the second year in row that the centuries old Bunga Dyajatra has been marked with limited celebrations, which otherwise lasts for months and is the longest festival in Nepal.

Last year, when the police tried to stop devotees from pulling the chariot during the lockdown, things took turn for worse culminating into a violent clash in Pulchok: locals pelted stones at officials, who in turn tear-gassed and later water cannoned the crowd.

The incident led the local government into imposing a curfew. But a day later, the festival was allowed to re-commence with safety measures. However, unlike previous years, the chariot took a shortcut to reach its destination.

Once every 12 years, the Machindranath chariot travels from and to Bungamati amidst much fanfare and is one of the city’s biggest cultural events. The red god resides in the Machindranath temple in Bungamati, except for six months in a year when it is drawn through the streets of Patan in a chariot.

The god is ceremonially installed on the chariot in mid-May and devotees pull the chariot to appease the rain god before the monsoon for good harvest.

The festival is often linked to the fate of the nation, and in fact the years in which the Machindranath chariot has keeled over or caught fire have been closely followed by major political upheavals and natural calamities in Nepal.

I’m down, but not out

In early April, the coronavirus cases were at an all-time low and we were reporting from Janakpur, and the surrounding border region for two episodes of Himalmedia’s Saglo Samaj weekly tv magazine program.

But we did not know that the surge in India was already beginning to affect the Tarai. After we returned to Kathmandu, we found out that our fixer in Janakpur had tested positive for Covid-19. All of us at Saglo Samaj on that trip quarantined for a week.

None of us showed any symptoms, so we got back to work, this time to report on the second wave that had by then started to affect Kathmandu Valley. The number of cases was doubling every three days, and the number of fatalities nationwide was shooting up.

A day before the lockdown was to go into effect on 29 April in Kathmandu Valley, we made a round of hospitals to film long queues of people who had either come in for a PCR test or the VeroCell vaccine. From the way they were crowding, it looked like they had forgotten about physical distancing.

Next, we went to the capital’s main bus park (pictured). It was filled with people thronging the ticket booths to get home before public transport stopped. Alas, it looked as if half of them would be taking the virus with them to the remotest corners of Nepal.

Several people in the ticket queues had no masks, or if they did were wearing them around their chins. Some had their masks dangling from one ear lobe, as if it was an amulet to protect them from the disease. This reminded me of my time in Janankpur where people were also not the least bit concerned about following safety measures.  

I had followed all safety measures, wearing masks and even a face visors when we were in crowded areas. I never left my room without my sanitiser. So I was a bit surprised when I started feeling fatigue and got a slight fever. I tested positive. 

On the fifth day, my body started swelling up, I lost all sense of smell or taste. I had an unfamiliar cough, and it kept me from sleeping. My chest hurt like someone was pinching me.

I measured my blood oxygen level obsessively. I looked at the potted jade and money plant in my room and it was reassuring that they were supplying me with additional oxygen. Alone in my room, I tried to keep my spirit up.

My editor told me to rest, and told me I could finish my report after I got better. One part of me wanted to just rest, but another goaded me to work since there was no risk. After all, I thought, I am down, not out.

I am feeling better now, and writing my report helps me forget about Covid-19 and let my antibodies get on with the job of defeating the virus. Work has also helped keep my morale high, since I am communicating about the risk and impact of the pandemic. 

I hope to meet you all soon in another episode of Saglo Samaj

Nature’s fragile gift to Nepal

All photos: AJAY NARSINGH RANA

Nature प्रकृति (n.) All the plants, animals, and things that exist in the universe that are not made by people 

Oxford Dictionary

From the High Himalaya to the flatlands of Nepal, we in this land have been blessed with nature at its most resplendent

It is when we are prohibited from immersing ourselves in the wilderness like we are now, that we learn to value it even more. We relive the experience of sauntering along single tracks through forests of rhododendron this time of year, and ending up near a gushing waterfall. Or, climbing steeply to a high meadow to be greeted with an expansive mountain vista. 

Quiet walks inside misty sal forests of the Tarai, the horizon limited by the depth of trees. The heart skips a beat with excitement, scanning the undergrowth, ears strained for an animal’s footfall on dry leaves.

One does not need to go far. Just on the outskirts of Kathmandu, are terraces dyed yellow with mustard fields in Bungamati, glistening with dew as the morning sun burns away the fog. 

Nature plays a vital role in the spiritual and physical health of human beings, but cities expand and encroach upon the wilderness shrinking the spaces that the living world once occupied. Nature retreats, blighted by the pollution of sound, light, air and water. 

Being in nature changes us, allowing our rejuvenation. It allows us to contemplate the ‘being’ in human being. We find solace there, and are forced to think about how things should be, how they can be better. We can process creative thoughts and allow new ideas to be born. Above all, nature is much-needed therapy, a balm for our overburdened selves, and a journey of self-discovery. 

The sounds of nature heal the soul, a respite from the onslaught of the urban cacophony that defiles our urbanised existence. Sitting silently on a fallen log, we listen to birdcalls from the forest canopy as the dappled light is filled with merry song. A light breeze brushes across the tops of trees, making the leaves sigh.

Warblers flit from one branch to the other, more heard than seen as they refuse to sit still in their search for food. Birds like the Rufous Sibia whistle from a bush, while the crook…cru..croo call comes from a Spotted Dove perching on a nearby tree.

Apart from these larger life forms, there is the fascinating small world. Tiny plants and animals that make a large part of what the forest is, and seeing it functioning in cosmic harmony reminds us of the importance of all species great and small in keeping the ecosystem in a state of equilibrium.

The giant moss-covered tree trunk glows in a shaft of sunlight, and on the forest floor tiny wildflowers emerge from underneath blades of grass. Life here is reincarnated continuously from decay and death. 

Nature nudges us to think of creation as not just a few species, but a collective and collaborative whole, supporting a multitude of life forms. This bonding with the primeval forces us to see our own existence on a timescale that transcends our short lives, it instils empathy and patience in ourselves. 

This is when we discern how absurd it is for a single species to dominate and control the world. Scientist and conservationist Rachel Carson once said: “In nature, nothing exists alone.”

Let us celebrate Nepal’s natural diversity and cherish this fragile gift we were handed down by the creator, not to keep, but to protect. Nature provides us serenity, hope, and the knowledge to help us along the path called life. 

 Ajay Narsingh Rana is a nature, wildlife photographer and, a blogger in prakritinepal.com, wilderness first responder, and a rural first aid trainer.

Two Nepals in the Death Zone

Climbers with bottled oxygen on the last stretch of the summit ridge of Mt Everest. Photo: Damien Francois / Nepali Times Archive

“It is estimated around 6% of cases become critically ill. By this point the body is starting to fail and there is a real chance of death…. the immune system is now spiralling out of control and causing damage throughout the body. It can lead to septic shock when the blood pressure drops to dangerously low levels and organs stop working properly or fail completely. Acute respiratory distress syndrome caused by widespread inflammation in the lungs stops the body getting enough oxygen it needs to survive.”

–       James Gallagher, BBC News

“In the death zone, climbers’ brains and lungs are starved for oxygen, their risk of heart attack and stroke is increased, and their judgement quickly becomes impaired.”

– Aylin Woodward in businessinsider.com

Scrolling down through my Facebook feed these days all too often results in my seeing juxtaposed posts relating to Nepal. One chronicles the latest news from Everest Base Camp (EBC) as, step by step, the Khumbu Icefall ladders and the ropes to the summit are put in place, the other consists of pleas for help for a loved one—an elderly father, a diabetic sister, a cherished child—struggling to breathe due to Covid-19 and in desperate need of a hospital bed, a ventilator.

The contrast is too great, too extreme. My mind struggles to cope, to accept these two polar opposites. How can they co-exist? How can these be the two faces of a single country?

Oxygen cylinders being carried to a hospital in Kathmandu this week. Photo: Amit Machamasi

If there is any link between them, then it is this: both the climbers, who have paid anything in excess of $50,000 for the privilege of summiting the highest mountain on our planet where the oxygen saturation (SaO2) in the body (normally 98-99%) can fall to as low as 40%, and the patients suffering from a severe attack of Covid-19 are in Death Zone: both are dependent on oxygen canisters for their very survival. 

But the expedition team members have made a conscious decision to brave such harsh conditions whereas patients finding themselves at death’s door are there through no fault of their own. 

Nepal’s battle with its first wave of Covid-19 caused the much-lauded Visit Nepal 2020 campaign to crumble along with the hopes and dreams of many thousands of people working in the trekking and expedition sectors. Agency owners, guides and porters, seemed to have been surprisingly successful, in spite of the government’s mish-mash policies and the people’s growing boredom.

Lockdowns and so-called ‘loose-downs’ led to a lackadaisical attitude to masks, social distancing and hand hygiene. To the surprise of even the experts, after reaching a daily caseload peak of 5,743 on 21 October, right at the start of the back-to-back festivals of Dasain and Tihar, instead of soaring out of control as expected, the numbers of daily infections started to slowly decrease. Throughout February and March this year they remained either in double-digits or the low one-hundreds. 

Few tourists filtered back to Nepal for the 2020 autumn season after the international airport, closed for so many months to all but repatriation and charter flights, reopened. The tourism sector started to pin its hopes on Spring 2021.  

Many trekking agencies, in critical financial straits, encouraged their regular and prospective clients to come and enjoy trails that were less crowded than usual. However, most potential travellers were wary, all too aware of the risks involved. They were perhaps deterred by the lack of visa on arrival and the protocols, or simply bound by their own countries’ travel restrictions and economic malaise.

Photos: Lesley D Junlakan

The major exception to this overall hesitancy and reluctance to travel to Nepal was the expedition sector. The Nepal government opened registration for the Spring climbing season, a major source of revenue, actively encouraging teams to come.

And they came (primarily) for Everest itself, or for any of the country’s myriad major mountaineering challenges, like Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri, both among our planet’s fourteen eight-thousanders. 

This policy contrasted starkly with that of neighbouring China: for the Spring expedition season only Chinese were to be allowed to climb the north face of Everest which straddles the border of Nepal and China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region. 

And amazingly Nepal’s tactic worked: more than 400 climbers joining over 40 expeditions are on the mountain this season. More than 150 have already made it to the summit and there were two fatalities on 12 May. 

This is the busiest year ever on the mountain, even exceeding 2019 when, unthinkably, there were queues of climbers staying dangerously long in the Death Zone as they waited their turn to get to the summit.

Most overseas expedition members started to arrive in Nepal towards the end of March, allowing them sufficient time for team-building and acclimatisation activities before making their final summit bids, the traditional ‘weather window’ for this usually occurring in the third quarter of May. It was at this precise point that things started to go awry in India, with the inevitable knock-on effect in Nepal. 

India, like Nepal, seemed to have been able to control its first wave of Covid and figures remained in a beguiling trough throughout February, even dropping to below 10,000 cases per day. Then, inexplicably, a change set in and numbers started to inexorably rise, crossing the 100,000 cases per day mark on 4 April.  

Coincidentally or otherwise, this was the fourth official day of the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, attended by an estimated 9 million Hindu pilgrims and now dubbed a ‘super spreader event’. Nepal’s former King Gyanendra Shah and Queen Komal Shah were among those who tested positive after returning from the festival to Kathmandu. 

As the alarming increase in figures continued and many countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the traditional employment bases for Indian labourers, started to ban flights from Delhi, many thousands of Indians rushed to transit in Kathmandu, taking advantage of a gaping administrative loophole and completing their formalities at the Indian Embassy before catching their onward flights. 

At the same time, Indian pilgrims flocked to the remote Nepal region of Mustang, largely Covid-free throughout the first wave, to pray at the holy temple in Muktinath and enjoy the hot springs at Tatopani. 

Meanwhile, just as most expeditions were hunkered down at EBC, the daily case figure in Nepal started to increase, crossing the thousand mark on 18 April (compared with almost 274,000 in India that day). It continued to rise exponentially, resulting in lockdown being imposed on 29 April and both domestic and international flights being grounded in early May. 

As the situation in the Kathmandu Valley in particular became increasingly serious, alarming reports of Covid-19 cases started to come from first EBC and then Dhaulagiri Base Camp. 

Climbers were initially thought to be suffering from HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), which is a life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs that can occur even in otherwise healthy people at high altitude. 

It was only after being air-lifted to Kathmandu and PCR-tested that the correct diagnosis of Covid-19 were made. The symptoms of HAPE and Covid-19 are eerily, and dangerously, similar: low oxygen levels, acute difficulty in breathing, fever and lung fluid.

Although reports continued to filter in of Covid-19 at Base Camps, and climbers are evacuated, some climbers’ personal blogs severely critical of the lax attitude being taken towards Covid-prevention both in the individual team camps and communal areas. Invariably, social media posts by the team leaders themselves completely ignored the issue. 

The idolised Nirmal Purja, aka Nims dai, who had catapulted to fame last year for breaking records and climbing all 14 eight-thousanders in seven months, followed by the controversial first-ever winter ascent of K2, made self-aggrandising posts of his prowess and skills, accompanied by glossy, model-boy photos. 

These were greeted by his adoring fans with sycophantic comments of ‘hero’ and ‘awesome’ even while one of his Elite Expedition team members fell victim to Covid-19. What a change from the modest man who, in Autumn 2020, had cancelled his Everest and Manaslu expeditions, publicly stating, ‘we do not find it ethical to run the expedition with the risks of more transmission, jeopardising the safety of our clients as well as the local community’.

What had happened to that admirable sense of ethics? Had it been submerged by an inflated ego? Or was he under intense political pressure to toe the line?

In the early evening of Friday, 7 May the Sherpa rope-fixing team reached the summit of Everest. Among them was Kami Rita Sherpa, marking his record-breaking 25th summit.  Nepal’s Covid-19 caseload for that same day crossed the 9,000 mark, the active case count crossing 80,000, with a positivity rate of over 40% in the Valley, as high as 70% in Banke. 

Facebook groups like the Nepal Covid-19 Support Group started being inundated with requests for help, advice, and above all for life-giving oxygen.

If the situation on Everest were not already bizarre enough, then the following Reuters report added the final touch: ‘China will set up “a line of separation” at the summit of Mount Everest to prevent the mingling of climbers from COVID-hit Nepal and those ascending from the Tibetan side as a precautionary measure … It was not immediately clear how the line would be enforced on the summit, a tiny, perilous and inhospitable area the size of a dining table…. A group of 21 Chinese nationals are en route to the summit on the Tibetan side.”

On 9 May Tourism Mail, under the headline, ‘No Infections on Everest: Tourism Ministry’, reported the official denial that Covid-19 had been detected at EBC: ‘The Ministry has urged one and all not to entertain and disseminate unreliable and unverified information, creating fears among members in expedition teams and their families and just to follow the information provided by official sources.’

It seemed that in this complete denial of reality and desperate attempt at deception, the last straw of decency and honesty had irrevocably snapped.

Now I am left wondering how those Nepalis who have lost their loved ones to Covid-19 will feel as the first ‘real’ conquests of Everest on its ‘strictly separated summit’ by wealthy climbers rather than largely anonymous Sherpas started being announced this week—knowing that the feats have been achieved with the aid of supplementary oxygen.

The Bahraini Royal Guard team was first up there at 06:00 on 11 May, and many have followed since. And how will those summiteers feel on their return to Kathmandu, to find a city being ravaged by Covid, a severe oxygen shortage … and no flights home.

A native of the UK and resident of Thailand, Lesley D Junlakan has been a frequent visitor to Nepal. She was in Kathmandu for most of 2020 and is currently locked down in Budhanilkantha where she spends her time writing and learning Nepali.

We knew the tsunami was approaching

Photos: AMIT MACHAMASI

A month ago, Nepal was reporting an average of only 300 Covid-19 cases daily, and the number of deaths was zero for several days in a row. The people, and the government, thought the worst was over and in any case, a vaccine was arriving.

This week, the total number of active cases exceeded 100,000 with daily infections staying above 9,000 for a week. Daily fatalities are now above 150 every day. The nationwide test positivity rate is as high as 50%.

For a country of 30 million, Nepal’s figures are higher than that of India and the rest of the world. As such experts have warned of a health catastrophe as bad if not worse than of the southern neighbour. And our curve has not even started to flatten yet, we are nowhere near the peak.

Nepalganj and Kathmandu have already turned into ‘mini India’ with the coronavirus spreading like a wildfire, and infected doctors and nurses having to treat patients with the same disease. Nepal’s health care system has already exceeded the breaking point.

“It has become a challenge to treat all patients. People are taking longer to recover, plasma therapy and remdesivir aren’t effective and 90% of those admitted need oxygen,” says Sagar Kumar Rajbhandari, director of Teku Hospital in Kathmandu. “Unlike during the first wave when we could maintain a patient with 1-2 litres of oxygen per day, we now need more than 15 litres per individual.”

Doctors are having to select which patients have a better chance of survival on scarce ventilators. Patients are dying in the corridors because they cannot breathe.

Hospitals across the country are now stopping admits because of serious shortages of beds with oxygen, and patients are sleeping on parking lots and verandahs. They are now reporting shortages of masks, PPE and essential medicines as well.

The Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre’s latest decision to limit oxygen supply per hospital at 100 litres a day has added to the challenge. Patients under treatment in hospitals including Bhaktapur and Grande face critical oxygen shortages and can’t take on any more people. The quota system has made the situation even more dire.

The first consignment of 400 oxygen cylinders out of the 20,000 promised by China was flown in from Beijing on Tuesday by a Nepal Airlines jet, which also brought ventilators, oxygen concentrators and other equipment.

As of 12 May, 71 out of 77 districts in Nepal are under prohibitory orders. The lockdown in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur has been extended by another two weeks with further restrictions.

International and domestic flights have been grounded until 31 May except for two Kathmandu-Delhi flights a week under the Nepal-India air bubble agreement. Only some cargo charters and rescue flights are permitted.

During a virtual meeting on Tuesday health minister Hridayesh Tripathi hinted that the government might have to declare a “health emergency” since the steps it had taken so far were not adequate in addressing the extent of the crisis.

But long before prime minister K P Oli lost a confidence vote in the parliament and plunged the country into further uncertainty, the government’s response to the pandemic was dismal at best.

Leaders were busy organising political rallies with thousands in attendance in a show of force after Oli dissolved the parliament in December. Then there were religious gatherings, lavish inaugurations and indoor political meetings.

Similarly, Holi and Biska celebrations went ahead because of protests against government efforts to restrict it. Bars, malls, cinema halls, concerts all continued as if there was no pandemic. Border checkpoints in the Tarai were understaffed.

“If we talk in numbers I’d say 70% of the blame for the new surge goes to the public and 30% to the government,” says Sameer Mani Dixit of the Centre for Molecular Dynamic Nepal. “The government could have done more to procure vaccines through diplomacy, enforce safety measures and expand contact tracing. But it was the people who were crowding public spaces without masks or physical distancing, we wouldn’t have required lockdowns otherwise.”

The Covid-19 crisis has magnified and brought into sharp focus the result of a lack of investment in Nepal’s health system. Medical care is either too sloppy in government hospitals, or too expensive in private ones. Either way, for most Nepalis health care is either inaccessible or unaffordable.

To be sure, the scale of this crisis would have overwhelmed even an industrialised country’s health system. But despite knowing that a tsunami of coronavirus was approaching from India, Nepal’s health infrastructure remained severely lacking, and hospitals were sorely unprepared, understaffed and under-equipped. The limited resource now has to be distributed also among patients with other diseases.

There are a total of 18,917 general, 1,446 ICU and 634 ventilator beds across the country. But that is much less than what is needed. Doctors and nurses are working in longer shifts with diapers because they cannot waste time going to the rest room. 

“Having already lived through the first wave albeit the milder one, we knew there was a risk and should have invested in preparedness but both the government and people didn’t realise the severity until it was too late,” says infectious disease specialist Sher Bahadur Pun.

He adds: “We have no visible increase in human resource or infrastructure to show as the stronger surge grips us all. We haven’t even begun to think about how to manage children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome requiring ICU due to Covid.”

The Health Ministry has projected the second wave to peak in Nepal with at least 15,000 cases a day by July. Even if that were true, nothing is stopping Nepal from falling victim to the 3rd, 4th and more waves as has happened in Europe and the Americas with new mutants.

The only way out of this pandemic is herd immunity through mass vaccination. But only 2.1 million of Nepal’s 30 million populations have received the first dose of either Covishield or VeroCell vaccines. Fewer than 400,000 have been fully inoculated with the booster shot.

Nepal’s plan to buy five million doses of Covidshield fell through after the Indian ban on exports of vaccines. Nepal is yet to receive one million doses it paid for.

The COVAX initiative hasn’t been able to deliver owing to a manufacturing bottleneck after the first consignment of its 348,000 doses was delivered in March.

The UN resident coordinator in Nepal Sara Beysolow Nyanti tweeted on Tuesday that Nepal ranked ninth among the 10 top countries in terms of daily increase in Covid-19 cases, but it has the smallest population and the highest case positivity rate.

She appealed for immediate assistance, writing: “Nepal has not been able to secure vaccines for even 20% of those who need to be vaccinated. Nepal should be prioritised at the top. I appeal to the countries that can spare vaccine to send them to Nepal immediately.”

Meanwhile, the government has announced that it will resume inoculating people in Kathmandu Valley with the Chinese Sinopharm VeroCell shots from 15 May. The vaccine received WHO approval last week, and the vaccinations will be from the 800,000 doses donated by China last month. Some 300,000 people have already got their first jabs of the vaccine.

Nepal should now concentrate all its efforts towards vaccine diplomacy to secure more doses for 20% of its population, say public health experts, wherever it may come from and there is no time to waste. 

The health ministry maintains that it has approached countries other than India to procure vaccines and funding is not the problem but the supply.

Said health minister Hridayesh Tripathi during Tuesday’s press meet: “The government can buy 10 million doses of Covid vaccine if someone can provide it at $4 per shot.”

Ass as Prime Minister

If only Eh-malay alpha males didn’t have the if-I-don’t-win-I-won’t-play mentality, we would by now have a Tarai Fast Track, piped gas in every home and ocean-going container ships docking in Sunsari.

If only Lotus Flower had not fallen out with Red Flag, the Maoists would have easily formed a glowernment by now. If only Comrade Upadro was still in the good books of Mahan Thakur, the grand coalition would have formed a government so long ago, it would have been time to bring it down already.

But what really puzzles me is why PM Oily is so unperturbed. What does he know that we don’t. Does he have another rabbit up his sleeves? Is he hiding a trump card under his hat? Why is he crying wolf in a China shop?

Those of us who watched the high drama of the latest episode of the tele serial The Great Hall of the People last week will all agree that it showed Nepali politics at its all-time best and the protagonists all deserve to be nominated for the NEFTA Film Award in the Best Supporting Role category. 

No one in the world can stab each other in the back as figuratively as they do. No world leader can play the fiddle on a tilting deck like our rulers. Few countries in the world have a stockpile of serial prime ministers that they can fall back on in times of crisis: KPO, MKN, PKD, SBD, BRB, JNK, BURP. 

The whole point about Monday’s pseudo-drama at the Birendra Intercontinental  Conventional Centre was to waste time to buy time to haggle some more about whose turn it is to do nothing for two years. The leaders agreed to disagree some more so they could get the Prez to give themselves another three days to do some more horse-trading, even though horses I know would not take kindly to being traded like politicians.

Nepal’s legislature is beginning to resemble a goat market, where the animals can  be bought and sold, just to be decapitated at the crack of dawn. Or, you could say Nepali politics is now similar to a bull-fight, only that real oxymorons are smarter. Some may say it’s like a cock-fight, but that would be a slur on all you good roosters out there. You could say the politicos are behaving like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but that would belittle both predator and prey. And without belittling the serpents (some of them venomous) in our midst, who shall remain nameless, allow me to unequivocally state that parliament resembles a snake pit. If this political stalemate drags on any longer, the Ass may be forced to stake its claim to prime ministership.

In fact, my legal advisers have just asked me to take this opportunity to quickly issue a pre-emptive public disclaimer about speciest language that might crop up in future in this column. So, here goes: The views and opinions expressed hereinafter are not those of any donkey we know and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Animal Kingdom in general and Assdom in particular. Any information, opinion, slur, insult or slander in or between these lines are not intended to malign any cold blooded reptile or bloody-thirsty predator. 

Now that we have those legal niceties out of the way, let me conclude my remarks this week by saying that any resemblance that any vulture, piranha, shark, hyena, pig, jackal, (and, yes, even an ass) bears with Nepal’s human politicians, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Dolma Impact Fund II

The first close of the $40 million Dolma Impact Fund II has been announced as a private equity fund investing primarily in renewable energy, healthcare and technology in Nepal. Investors are FMO, the Dutch entrepreneurial development bank, CDC Group, the UK’s development finance institution and impact investor, Swedfund, the Swedish development finance institution, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The final close is targeted at $75m.

The announcement coincides with the second wave of Covid-19 impacting Nepal. Dolma II’s target sectors will directly address capacity constraints in healthcare and enable digital solutions to scale rapidly that will be vital both during and following the pandemic.