From baseless remedies to lies: How KP Oli botched the pandemic response?

NA personnel perform final rites of Covid-19 victims in makeshift funeral pyres. (File photo/RSS)

Ashim Neupane

  • Read Time 7 min.

Kathmandu: Last June, when Nepal was reeling under the first wave of the pandemic, former Health Minister and lawmaker Gagan Thapa asked Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, “Who told you Nepalis have a strong immunity?”

In the presence of a number of lawmakers in the House of Representatives the PM told Gagan Thapa: “You listened to it just now. I said so.” The lawmakers representing the then ruling party Nepal Communist Party cheered in applause, giggling as if the PM had announced a scientific fact. No MPs raised further questions,  and Thapa’s concerns went unresponded. 

A year later, when the country was bearing the brunt of the second wave of the lethal pandemic, the PM again downplayed the situation. A day before his article was published in the Guardian, PM Oli lied to the global community, saying the Covid-19 situation in Nepal was ‘under control’.

In June, the PM said, “Covid-19 is like flu. If contracted, one should drink hot water, and sneeze the virus out.” The PM also recommended people consume turmeric and Gurjo (Giloy) water to treat Covid-19.

And on April 8, the Prime Minister went extreme and claimed gargling with guava leaves could help get rid of Covid-19. 

Currently, Nepal is reporting grim records of Covid-19 cases and deaths every day. But still, neither the PM has changed his statement, nor his supporters have objected to his false statements.

Rather than strengthening the country’s already weak health infrastructure, PM Oli was busy making false claims and inaugurating projects. The country’s executive head had an entire year to plan to battle the pandemic.  Nothing substantive was done for the whole year.  

PM Oli proudly addressed the lower house, saying the government has successfully battled the pandemic, and the country has adequate resources to fight the pandemic.  

Collapse of health system 

Taking account of a rapid surge of Covid-19 cases, the Nepal Medical Association (NMA) — a non-profit organization of medical and dental doctors — on Wednesday declared a ‘red alert’ throughout the country.

Rather than strengthening the country’s already weak health infrastructure, PM Oli was busy making false claims and inaugurating projects.

The association stated that Nepal’s health sector has reached a critical situation and urged everyone to unite in a fight against the virus. “Nepal’s health sector is overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases due to the incompetence of the government,” reads the statement issued by the association.

The positivity rate is constantly increasing and has already hit the record high of 51 percent, according to the Health Ministry. As infection is spreading like a wildfire, hospitals are already overwhelmed and patients are turned away. There is a massive crunch of life-saving oxygen. People have already lost hope of getting any treatment. There is panic everywhere as the health system has already collapsed.

Until a few days back, the PM was still lying to the people about the number of ICUs and ventilators. While addressing the House of Representatives (HoR), PM Oli claimed that our health system has 3,000 ICU and 1,100 ventilator beds. However, the official data of the Health Ministry shows the country only has 1,423 ICUs and 583 ventilator beds.

On Thursday, Nepal reported 214 deaths and 8,842 new cases. The situation is already out of control.

In Teku Hospital – the only infectious disease Hospital in the capital – Covid-19 patients always wait for their turn to get a bed. “The hospital is overwhelmed. There are no beds available. We are treating patients in the corridor of the hospital. The health system has already collapsed,” said Dr Sagar Rajbhandari, Director at the Teku Hospital.

People are desperately waiting for their turn to get a bed.

As other hospitals are not admitting patients, the patients are flocking to Teku Hospital hoping to get oxygen support. “Families of Covid-19 patients come to the hospital seeking a bed, but we are helpless. We can’t turn them away,” Dr Rajbhandari told Nepal Live Today, further adding that the situation is already out of control.

On Wednesday afternoon, at least 12 patients were waiting for a bed in the hospital.

The situation of every other government hospital in Kathmandu Valley is the same. People are desperately waiting for their turn to get a bed. In many cases, patients are dying without getting any medical assistance.

A few days ago, Dr Achyut Karki, Covid-19 focal person of Bir Hospital, said that there are always at least 10 patients waiting for a bed. The situation of the Lalitpur-based Patan Hospital is no different. The hospital added 80 beds last week, but all the beds are already occupied, and patients are in the corridor with the hope of getting a bed.

Gasping for breath 

As many as 12 hospitals have already stopped admitting new Covid-19 patients as they have run out of oxygen.

There is a massive shortage of oxygen in the Kathmandu Valley. According to the Health Ministry, the Kathmandu Valley needs a total of 8,000 cylinders of oxygen daily, but the demand has spiked up by another 6,000 cylinders.

According to a media report, five Covid-19 patients succumbed to Covid-19 at Lumbini Provincial Hospital as a result of an acute shortage of oxygen.

“The government is making necessary arrangements to bring oxygen cylinders,” said Dr Samir Adhikari, Joint Spokesperson of the Health Ministry.

At least 400 oxygen cylinders have arrived in Nepal from China. However, hospitals say that Nepal doesn’t have enough plants to produce oxygen. “There is no shortage of cylinders; it is that Nepal has failed to produce oxygen. We don’t have enough plants,” said a promoter of a private hospital in Kathmandu.

“After the government started to supply oxygen to hospitals through the recommendation of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Center, private hospitals are not getting enough oxygen,” the promoter added.  

The government has directed oxygen suppliers not to sell or distribute oxygen without the recommendation of the CCMC. “After the government decision, we are getting only 150 oxygen cylinders a day. We are afraid about the situation. If the government doesn’t increase the supply, we will not be able to treat Covid-19 patients anymore,” said Dr Shail Rupakheti, Managing Director at Star Hospital.

At least 400 oxygen cylinders have arrived in Nepal from China. However, hospitals say that Nepal doesn’t have enough plants to produce oxygen.

“Our hospital needs at least 230-240 oxygen cylinders a day. The situation of every private hospital is the same after the government started to supply a limited number of oxygen cylinders,” said Dr Rupakheti.

The Health Ministry had issued a statement 10 days ago stating that the Covid-19 cases are increasing rapidly, and the system cannot control the pandemic, indicating the health system has already collapsed.

Cries of the doctors 

Medics are panicking and are helpless as there is no supply of oxygen and hospitals have already run out of beds. “I never felt such helpless in my ER [emergency room] duty. A couple of days back, the majority of the patients weren’t maintaining oxygen with a reservoir bag and were in need of HDU/ICU. But NONE available. Lost a young female at the 25th day of delivery to COVID in front of the eye,” wrote Dr Suman Acharya of Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital on Twitter.

Dr Raju Pangeni, who goes by the username @RajuPangeni4 on Twitter, wrote: “If the pulse-ox [pulse oximeter] on every other patient in your fever clinic shows the values in 80s and you know they don’t have a single oxygen bed in ED [emergency department], you just feel HELPLESS!”

Blaming people 

Even when the cases were rising in April, PM Oli was busy inaugurating Ram Mandir, Dharahara and other projects accompanying massive crowds. However, in an recent interview with CNN, PM Oli blamed the general public for the spread of the virus in Nepal.

Health experts say the government itself is responsible for the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases. “The prime minister himself was busy inaugurating several projects gathering huge crowds. Several events were organized in the PM’s residence too. Political parties were protesting by gathering huge crowds. Isn’t the government responsible?” said a doctor at a government hospital.

Dr Babu Ram Marasini, former Director of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, agrees that political parties acted as the spreader of the virus. “We had warned the government since the beginning that mass gatherings and rallies would trigger the rapid spread of the virus,” he said, “But they did not listen. They brought cadres from different parts of the country to participate in the rallies. This movement contributed to the spread,” Dr Marasini had told Nepal Live Today a week ago.

Crematorium running out of space 

The electric crematorium in the Pashupati is operating round the clock as the only electric crematorium is always overwhelmed with dead bodies. Likewise, the Pashupati Area Development Fund has set up a separate space in an open area to cremate Covid-19 casualties.

Health experts say the government itself is responsible for the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases.

“On Tuesday, 110 bodies were cremated in Pashupati. The number is five times more than the bodies cremated in Pashupati on normal days. Also, the electric crematorium is operated round the clock. There is a panic situation at Pashupati,” said Dr Pradip Dhakal, Member Secretary at the Pashupati Area Development Fund, further adding that the crematoriums at Pashupati are always full of bodies.

While vaccination is the only long-term solution to fight Covid-19, Nepal has only fully inoculated one percent of its population. The government already paid Serum Institute of India for a million doses of the Covishield vaccine, but the company is yet to supply the vaccine to India.

The government has said that the Institute cannot supply the doses at the earliest, citing a massive fire that broke at the company recently. As tragedy is unfolding one after another—amid rising numbers of deaths and infections—Nepal reappointed K P Sharma Oli Prime Minister of the country on May 13—he had lost the vote of confidence in Parliament on May 10 and was relegated to ‘caretaker’ status. The whole day saw intense political brinkmanship and a series of meetings in which all the political parties were involved.  Nobody spoke about the deaths and sufferings of the people.