Even Andrew Pollard of Oxford University, an old Nepal hand, and one of the developers of the AstraZeneca vaccine says he feels helpless. He wrote in a column in this paper recently: ‘I felt so proud when I saw the first doses of the Oxford vaccine being administered in Kathmandu, and the hope that it brought to Nepalis, but I am now saddened to hear that further supply is delayed.’
On Tuesday, the 60-65 age group in Kathmandu Valley, and 62-65 outside started being vaccinated with the 1 million extra doses of Sinopharm VeroCell donated by China. However, we need to get jabs to at least 19 million Nepali arms in the next few months to reduce the danger of a pre-Dasain surge, not to mention younger cohorts who are likely to be more vulnerable to a predicted third wave. Negotiations with Sinopharm to procure another 2 million doses are bogged down over a confidentiality clause in the contract.
The only ‘Nepali variants’ we should be worried about are the country’s feckless and mutated politicians. Prime Minister Oli has replaced five Health Ministers since 2018, three of them since the pandemic began.
Since vaccines are unlikely soon, public health experts have warned us repeatedly that even after the lockdown is eased, and even if some people are vaccinated, the only way to prevent future surges is through proper masks and physical distancing.
A recent Yale study in Bangladesh involving over 300,000 people showed that four simple actions led to a 10-time increase in mask wearing. Their four-fold path includes: 1. Giving away free masks, 2. Spread information about how to wear them properly, 3. Get celebrities to promote mask-wearing, 4. Enforce mask-wearing through persuasion and punishment.
Official figures grossly underestimate the spread and fatality from Covid-19 in Nepal. A projection by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle shows that on 31 May when the government reported 96 deaths from Covid-19, the actual number was closer to 363.
IHME calculations also show that 1,000 fewer Nepalis will die by 1 September if 95% of people wore masks while outdoors. The government is hinting that the lockdown rules will be eased on 14 June. Since vaccines are still a long way off, our only protection is masks and minimising movement.