Nepal’s Covid-19 crisis: Time is not on Nepal’s side, the international community can be

Kashish Das Shrestha

  • Read Time 4 min.

Nepal government must immediately launch a Ward level COVID test and vaccination drive, while the international community needs to urgently make vaccines and other in-kind emergency assistance available for Nepal to avert an escalating humanitarian disaster.

The numbers around Nepal’s COVID-19 second wave are fast rising beyond control. This week, the percentage positive has made new record highs daily, now well above 45% in what is still clearly an undercount. The crematory in Kathmandu is already overwhelmed. There are more patients in households across the country than hospital beds available. The worst is yet to come. There is but one clear path to containing a bigger disaster: immediate COVID test and vaccination drive.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister claimed his administration’s vaccination efforts had been successful. In reality, his government’s Covid response has been mired in controversy, corruption, and ineptness for over a year now, and details of corruption around vaccines are only starting to come into light. Just as the second wave’s toll started to mount and panic began to set in little over a week ago, the Ministry of Health and Population declared on April 25, the situation was now beyond its control, and left it to the public to do their own best to stay safe. When the Prohibitory Orders in Kathmandu to control the spread of Covid came into effect last week, it was the vaccination drive that was ended, while large wedding parties at top hotels and party venues continued to take place, even as it became clear these events were taking place by violating the prohibitory order and spreading the virus. In the meantime, videos of mismanaged and crowded PCR testing sites have been circulating on social media for weeks. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Vaccination is not new to Nepal. Indeed, the country has a long history of successfully running various vaccination campaigns over the decades with the help of international partners, such as malaria, measles and more. Yet, when faced with an unprecedented health crisis since last year, the country’s leadership failed to respond accordingly. This crisis is still unfolding and far from its peak. The government needs to step up, not step back, when it comes to testing, vaccinating and public welfare in a pandemic.

Immediate Actions That Can Be Taken

The lockdown has made many people newly homeless and indefinitely hungry. The government is in a position to build temporary safe shelters with the resources it has had since the 2015 quake. Non-profits and volunteers have been raising funds and feeding the hungry again, as they did last year. But again, it is the government that is best positioned to launch a ration and feeding program.

In issues more directly related to addressing the second wave, Covid tests and vaccines must go to the public in a door-to-door campaign or at the Ward level, not the other way round. Under testing remains a major problem in the country, making it difficult to get an honest picture of how and where the virus is spreading, which in-turn makes addressing the spread and its impacts a challenge. But testing is a costly affair that also requires traveling some distance to a testing site and then exposing yourself to the risk of standing in a crowd where it is not yet clear who has Covid and who does not. There are also entire regions in Nepal where PCR testing is not even available. The local ward office’s knowledge of the community it represents is deep.

Yesterday, on May 5, Nepal recorded set a new record for both the highest number of positive cases and fatalities. Time is not on our side. One hopes the international community is

At the same time, when the government abruptly announced it was ending vaccinations last week, only days after announcing vaccines would be made available until further notice, it did so citing the Prohibitory Orders that made mobility difficult, not the depletion of its vaccine stocks. This implies the government has some amount of vaccine stockpile left. Like testing, vaccines too needs to go to public, with the aim of containing new emerging hotspots and reducing chances of hospitalization of those at risk but not vaccinated yet. The government needs to quickly figure out what it wants to do with the vaccines it has left; organize the upcoming second dose for those who qualify, or use what it has to offer the first dose to a new population, or a mix of both. Still, the larger vaccine crisis Nepal is facing is that the country simply does not have enough vaccines in-hand to truly try and mitigate the worst effects of the second wave. For this, it needs urgent help.

An Appeal to The Global Community

Regardless of how many vaccines Nepal has left for use, and how it chooses to use it, it’s clear that international community must step in and step up right now with vaccine aid or watch Nepal fall deeper into a deadly multi-fold prolonged crisis stemming from the second wave.

To that end, the Covid Alliance for Nepal, a volunteer group of public health professions and concerned individuals has issued an open letter to sitting US Ambassador to Nepal, Randy Berry, urging him to use every means at his disposal to procure a supply of COovd-19 vaccinations for he country.  [DISCLOSURE: Author is part of the Alliance and signatory to the letter].

“We are writing because the United States has the means to dramatically reduce the loss of life and suffering that awaits Nepal in the coming weeks and months,” the letter states.“We therefore request that the United States government immediately release at least 12 million doses of vaccine to the Government of Nepal to assist it in protecting the population. America’s timely action will save hundreds of thousands of people from unnecessary suffering and death, and reduce the long term impacts of poverty and lost development.”

It is unclear if Nepal will receive any vaccines as aid from America or any other country any time soon. There are other in-kind assistance the country could use, such as ventilators. The relief also needs to be distributed across the country and not concentrated in major urban centers alone.

While Nepal waits to see who will come to its aid, the government cannot sit on its hands. Marshaling the government’s resources to deploy an army of medics and others to conduct Covid tests and setting up a public welfare and community assistance program at the ward level to help those affected by the second wave are critical on its own. It will also serve as an important management and logistical exercise for an eventual vaccine campaign, which must begin at the earliest day possible. Yesterday, on May 5, Nepal recorded set a new record for both the highest number of positive cases and fatalities. Time is not on our side. One hopes the international community is.

(Kashish Das Shrestha Tweets and Instagrams at @kashishds. He is a 2019 National Geographic Explorer.)