Even as the Covid-19 surge devastates Nepal, the government has extended restrictions of international air travel till 31 May, and lengthened the lockdown in Kathmandu Valley and other districts by two more weeks.
The move comes as the number of new daily Covid-19 cases in Nepal has stayed above 9,000, with hospitals across the country stopping admits because of serious shortages of beds with oxygen, and patients sleeping on corridors and verandahs. They are now reporting shortages of masks, PPE and essential medicines as well.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) wrote to all international carriers serving Nepal not to take any new bookings ‘till further advice, and to refund or extend the travel date as required by passengers’.
The notice does not include domestic airlines, but sources said they would also remain grounded as long as the lockdown in Kathmandu and other cities remain in effect. A meeting of the Chief District Officers of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur decided to extend the lockdown in the Valley for two more weeks from Wednesday, and announced complete bans on marriages and other ceremonies.
Only two flights a week between Kathmandu and New Delhi are allowed under the India-Nepal air bubble agreement by carriers of the two countries, and some cargo charters and rescue flights are also permitted.
The Ministry of Health announced another 9,486 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, out of the 21,313 people tested. This shows the positivity rate has come down slightly. There were also 5,400 recoveries on Tuesday, and among them was former king Gyanendra who was discharged from Norvic Hospital after two weeks, while queen Komal is still in hospital. Both had attended the super-spreader Kumbh Mela festival in India last month.
Another 79 people died in the past 24 hours in Nepal’s hospitals, adding to the funerals of 146 bodies across the country over the past few days managed by the Nepal Army. The total fatalities in the past year of the pandemic in Nepal crossed the 4,000 mark on Tuesday.
Despite the recoveries, the number of active cases nationwide is now approaching 100,000. It had fallen to less than 600 active cases in late March, when the number of daily deaths was zero for several days in a row.
Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi hinted during a virtual meeting on Tuesday that the government may have to declare a “health emergency” since the steps it had taken so far were not adequate in addressing the extent of the crisis.
Tripathi admitted that because of the number of serious patients, Nepal was now not just facing a shortage of oxygen cylinders, but all the 22 oxygen plants in Nepal also did not produce enough oxygen to meet the increased demand.
“Patients are facing problems because there is now a gap between demand and supply of oxygen,” Tripathi said.
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.
Tripathi said talks were underway to import vaccines from China, Russia, and the United States. He said India had assured that Nepal would be on the priority list for a shipment of the remaining 1 million Covishield AstraZeneca vaccines Nepal has already paid for.
Nearly 1.3 million people in Nepal who have received the first dose of Covishield are not certain when they will get the next jab because of India’s ban on its export.
Tripathi also denied that a commission fee had been paid to any agent to import Covishield vaccines from the Serum Institute of India. “If anyone can supply (Covishield) for $4 per dose, this government is ready to order 10 million doses,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government has announced that it will resume vaccinating people in Kathmandu Valley with the Chinese Sinopharm VeroCell vaccine on 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.
Of Nepal’s 30 million population, only 2.1 million people have so far been vaccinated, and 438,000 who got the Covishield in the first phase have got their booster jabs. The government says it hopes to get the rest of the Covishield under the COVAX initiative by end-May.