Nearly half of Kathmandu Valley’s population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but the national average is only a little over 20%. In essence, this is a microcosm of vaccine inequity seen globally – but it also reflects Nepal’s in-built socioeconomic inequalities.
In Asia and Africa, a majority of the population including health workers and the elderly are yet to receive even their first dose. But the US, France, Germany, and Israel are already providing booster shots to their vulnerable populations.
On one hand, this is a stark reminder that Nepal is not on the priority of wealthy nations. Just as it was not during the devastating second wave in May when, despite the prime minister and the president calling on foreign governments for vaccine shipments, the response was tepid.
On the other hand, the imbalance in vaccine distribution within Nepal is a reflection of long-standing inequities in healthcare services, education, drinking water, and food that predate Covid-19.
Despite a federal Constitution that has devolved decisions and delivery of basic services to local governments, it is still Kathmandu that holds the purse strings and power. Isolated and beyond the state’s reach even at the best of times, Nepal’s hinterland this year has been cut off by destructive floods blamed on the climate crisis.
A village in Kailali with 200 Tharu and Dalit families has been marooned by floods for the past month, where the submerged roads block access to even the rudimentary healthcare available.
It is not surprising, therefore, that very few in this village are inoculated. In fact, those who need to be vaccinated the most now face a triple whammy: historical state neglect, international apathy, and now climate-induced extreme weather.
This in turn has set off a vicious cycle, and the poor are getting poorer. The official death toll from Covid-19 in Nepal is nearly 12,000, but the ‘excess deaths’ that were not counted in remote villages across the country is probably several times higher.
An estimated 1,200 children have become orphans because of the death of one or both parents due to Covid-19. Many of them do not have support for food, healthcare, and education – setting a stage for intergenerational inequity.
In Kathmandu and urban centres, on the other hand, there is complacency and false sense of security as the festive season approaches. Unvaccinated children have also started attending in-person schools. The Health Ministry’s recent seroprevalence study has revealed that 67% of people have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, and therefore have natural immunity against the virus. This, combined with half of the valley’s targeted demography being vaccinated on paper, makes a case for a fully immune population.
But that is not the case. There is now growing proof that antibodies provided by vaccines wane over time, which means many of us who were vaccinated earlier this year have weaker protection than we think. Only those newly infected with the virus might have sufficient antibodies to fight off the next infection.
It is not as important to know what portion of the population has antibodies as to how much of it they have. Vaccinated individuals are less susceptible to hospitalisation, severe symptoms, and death, but they can still be contagious, especially as the more virulent Delta variant continues to circulate in the region.
The Dasain shopping spree has started, and there are throngs of shoppers in Asan and other bazar streets. Many have stopped wearing masks, or use them inappropriately. The situation will be worse when Kathmandu residents travel to their hometowns this week. They will be visiting elderly parents and grandparents, exposing vulnerable elderly relatives with lower immunity to the virus.
The government is bringing in 100,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines after the festivals, with plans for 10 million more by March. But provincial and district hospitals must have deep refrigeration equipment in place, and make necessary collaboration with private hospitals.
To make sure that each Nepali child, even those in remote Karnali, gets a shot at the Covid-19 vaccine, our expansive network of community healthcare workers must be mobilised and, where required, administer vaccines at the household level.
Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa is an epidemiologist and a senior research monitoring and evaluation advisor at IPAS Nepal.