Nepal’s rural health system, already underfunded, understaffed and overstretched, is struggling with the enormous added burden of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having barely coped with the first wave last year, hospitals in the remote mountains of Far-Western Province have found that the variants in the second wave are much more lethal, there are many more patients than before, and more of them require hospitalisation.
In Achham district the administration declared a lockdown on 3 May, but by then the virus was already spreading within families and house-to-house. Till the day before the lockdown, people were still arriving by the busloads from India, Kathmandu and other cities. Testing and tracing were lax, and they were mingling in the markets.
On Sunday, Nepal added 8,850 new confirmed infections, bringing total active cases to 88,160. There were 52 fatalities but 26 more died at home. Kathmandu reported 4,198 cases in the last 24 hours. There are 832 people in ICU across the country, and 267 patients on ventilator support.
In the village of Jaygad of Achham, for example, an annual fair with large crowds was being held even as 13 out of 15 sample antigen tests came out positive. The virus was spreading into the remotest villages.
“We have increased awareness programs and testing, and local governments have become more active in the recent days and taken more ownership of testing and information dissemination,” says Janakraj Dhungana at Achham’s District Health Office.
But many wonder whether it is too late to be disseminating information through loudspeakers on masking and distancing, when patients and families throng ill-equipped hospitals. Dhungana himself admits that there was not enough testing and isolation because of a shortage of kits.
Like other districts of Far-Western Province, the caseload in Achham is increasing, with 2,183 positive cases and 17 deaths so far. Of this, 511 positive cases and 6 deaths are during this second wave.
The vaccination drive was also suspended after 3,000 medical personnel and community health workers were inoculated. But 15,000 senior citizens in Achham alone still have not got their second doses yet.