A tragedy in the making: Covid, politics and crisis in Nepal

By Prateek Srivastava
South Asia Analyst

While the world is preoccupied with heart-wrenching videos of healthcare facilities falling apart in India, the neighbouring nation of Nepal, tucked away in the Himalayas, remains largely overlooked. However, the situation there is not too different from the crisis in India. With rising cases, increasing deaths, limited availability of resources, lack of infrastructure, and a growing political crisis, Nepal too is a tragedy in the making.

In the country’s capital Kathmandu, private hospitals are turning patients away due to a lack of beds and supplies, and in rural parts of the country, where hospitals do not exist, people are dying at home, relying mostly on home remedies.

1200%. That is the rate at which Covid-19 infections have risen in Nepal in just the past few weeks. In early April, Nepal in total registered about 100 cases a day, which escalated to nearly 10,000 at the time of writing[1]. How did it come to this? The story is not much different from India. Mass public events such as festivals and political gatherings accelerated the spread of the virus. Since late March, people started attending religious gatherings in large numbers. Many Hindu festivals fall during these months, including Holi, New Year, and several local and indigenous festivals. Thousands of Nepalis gathered in the capital to celebrate the major religious festival Pahan Charhe[2]. Others came together in Bhaktapur, a nearby city to celebrate Bisket Jatra, despite authorities ordering them not to[3]. While these festivals were being held, many traveled to India to take part in the Kumbh Mela (weeks-long mass gatherings of Devout Hindus near the banks of the Ganges River), an event to which the surge in India (and by extension Nepal) has been largely attributed. Patients included Nepal’s former King Gyanendra Shah and Queen Komal Shah, who were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on their return to Nepal[4].

Although doctors and experts opposed these festivals and massive gatherings, this did not stop people from gathering for festivals and other religious events. One placard in support of the event (in Bhaktapur) read: “Our festival is dearer than our lives to us.”[5]

Given the freedom of movement agreement between India and Nepal, the new variant in the former was easily imported. One of the worst-hit areas outside Kathmandu has been the city of Nepalgunj in the Banke district, which is very close to the border with Uttar Pradesh. The district has witnessed a sudden influx of thousands of Nepali migrant workers from India, ahead of the closure of the border between the two countries that was announced after the massive rise of cases in India.

Alongside the raging health crisis, there is also a political crisis – which the government is now being widely criticised for distracting attention away from COVID-19. Amid a feud with his fellow Nepal Communist Party (NCP) co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli dissolved the country’s Parliament in December 2020 to consolidate power. Later in February, the country’s Supreme Court ruled PM Oli’s move unconstitutional and reinstated Parliament. Following the ruling, the Nepal Communist Party also split into two, the Maoist Center, led by Dahal, and the United Marxist Leninist (UML) party, led by Prime Minister Oli[6].

Meanwhile, criticism is also being drawn specifically towards Prime Minister Oli for openly promoting home remedies for Covid-19 and downplaying professional supervision. He has been on record suggesting that the virus can be treated by gargling with guava leaves[7]. This came soon after his earlier statement that Nepalis have very strong immunity because they consume a lot of spices. On April 24, when the surge in cases had been on a rise, PM Oli was surrounded by local media, and supporters, in the inauguration of a new Dharahara (Watchtower) to replace a tower destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. With critics accusing him of being distracted with political gains rather than ramping up testing and addressing the surge in cases, Oli lost a parliamentary vote of confidence on May 10[8]. Opposition parties were unable to muster a majority, however, and Oli was sworn in again as prime minister on May 14. The political crisis is by no means over, however, with many still fearing that the government will continue being distracted from dealing with the worsening pandemic[9].

Official statistics, widely believed to be underestimated[10], puts the death toll at around 4,700, while the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) predicts 40,000 deaths by the beginning of July. This is a projected per-capita toll worse than any other country in South or Southeast Asia[11]. In January, India donated 1 million AstraZeneca-Covishield doses to Nepal.

Soon after, the Nepali government signed a deal to purchase an additional 2 million doses from the Serum Institute of India, the Indian manufacturer of the AstraZeneca vaccine[12]. However, India has since halted vaccine exports in late March to ensure inoculations for its own citizens as the virus began to sweep the country. In late March, China donated 800,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses to Nepal, followed by 10 ventilators and other equipment in May. The U.S. has also donated 100 ventilators and recently announced $8.5 million in additional support, which, according to USAID Nepal Mission Director Sepideh Keyvanshad, will be spent by USAID in coordination with Nepal’s Health Ministry. Keyvanshad added, “I would say that… Nepal, alongside India, is our highest priority right now,” though failed to mention how the country would aim to meet its vaccine or ventilator needs[13].

The coming few weeks will be crucial for Nepal, as the country is on its way towards a full-blown overwhelming of its health services. Although the country has banned international flights, ordered oxygen and deployed the army to help the citizens, time is of the essense. More festivals are approaching. The ‘Rato Machhendranath’ festival is due later this month, close to Kathmandu, and the organisers have said they will adopt social distancing measures and make masks compulsory – what happens in reality remains to be seen[14].

While India has received much attention and aid, the small nation of Nepal remains overlooked by the headlines. Crematoriums are overwhelmed, and devastating images in local media paint a bleak picture of covid-19 in Nepal. While it can be controlled, the government remains distracted and sceptical over established medical practices that have been proven effective against Covid-19 elsewhere. So, is Nepal a tragedy in the making? The next few weeks will tell us.

References

  1. “Coronavirus Covid-19 News In India: Find Latest News, Updates, Cases, Deaths Rate Of Coronavirus”. 2021. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/about/coronavirus/.
  2. “Nepal Facing ‘Human Catastrophe’ Similar To India’S Amid Covid Surge”. 2021. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/06/nepal-facing-human-catastrophe-similar-to-india-amid-rampant-covid-surge.
  3. “Celebration Of Bisket Jatra Begins From Today”. 2021. My Republica. https://myrepublica.nagariknetwork.com/news/celebration-of-bisket-jatra-begins-from-today/.
  4. “After Attending Kumbh Mela, Nepal’S Former King Gyanendra, Queen Komal Test Positive For Covid”. 2021. The Print. https://theprint.in/world/after-attending-kumbh-mela-nepals-former-king-gyanendra-queen-komal-test-positive-for-covid/642961/.
  5. “Explained: Nepal Stares At Covid Abyss As Cases Skyrocket By 1200% In Weeks”. 2021. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-nepal-stares-at-covid-abyss-as-cases-skyrocket-by-1200-in-weeks-7308073/.
  6. Diplomat, The. 2021. “What Explains Nepal’S Perennial Instability?”. Thediplomat.Com. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/what-explains-nepals-perennial-instability/.
  7. “As Virus Cases Surge In Nepal, Experts Warn Against Lapses And Complacency”. 2021. Kathmandupost.Com. https://kathmandupost.com/health/2021/04/12/as-virus-cases-surge-in-nepal-experts-warn-against-lapses-and-complacency.
  8. “Nepal Prime Minister Oli Fails Trust Vote In Parliament”. 2021. Kathmandupost.Com. https://kathmandupost.com/politics/2021/05/10/nepal-prime-minister-oli-fails-trust-vote-in-parliament
  9. India, Press. 2021. “K P Sharma Oli Set To Be Sworn In As Nepal Prime Minister For Third Time”. Business-Standard.Com. https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/k-p-sharma-oli-set-to-be-sworn-in-as-nepal-prime-minister-for-third-time-121051400319_1.html. .
  10. “Number Of Covid-19 Deaths Far Higher Than What The Government Claims, Officials Say”. 2021. Kathmandupost.Com. https://kathmandupost.com/health/2020/11/18/number-of-covid-19-deaths-far-higher-than-what-the-government-claims-officials-say.
  11. “IHME | COVID-19 Projections”. 2021. Institute For Health Metrics And Evaluation. https://covid19.healthdata.org/nepal?view=cumulative-deaths&tab=compare.
  12. Diplomat, The. 2021. “What Explains Nepal’S Perennial Instability?”. Thediplomat.Com. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/what-explains-nepals-perennial-instability/.
  13. “Explained: Nepal Stares At Covid Abyss As Cases Skyrocket By 1200% In Weeks”. 2021. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-nepal-stares-at-covid-abyss-as-cases-skyrocket-by-1200-in-weeks-7308073/.
  14.   Diplomat, The. 2021. “What Explains Nepal’S Perennial Instability?”. Thediplomat.Com. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/what-explains-nepals-perennial-instability/.

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