As Covid-19 ravages India, there is new fear that neighboring Nepal will start to suffer a similar fate.
Cases have exploded in the country in recent weeks. On Friday, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed his concern over the unfolding crisis.
“India remains extremely worrying,” he said during a press briefing. “But it’s not just India that has emergency needs. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Egypt are just a few of the countries facing peaks in cases and hospitalizations. “
Aid groups say this is just the tip of the iceberg for Nepal, the landlocked Himalayan nation of more than 28 million people known for its serene landscapes, colorful culture and Mount Everest.
“We are in the initial phase,” said Sushila Pandit, a Nepalese aid worker with Mercy Corps, an international non-governmental humanitarian group. “I think the condition will be more critical in the next few days.”
The positivity rate is now 45%, with nearly 9,000 new cases per day, an increase of about 3,000% from last month, according to Our World in Data, a research group. Deaths are also increasing sharply. In April, five deaths were reported per day. The most recent seven-day average had risen to 174 deaths per day.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned all travelers should avoid Nepal and a lockdown was extended in the Kathmandu Valley until May 27.
Many in the country attribute the skyrocketing cases to a wave of Nepalese workers returning to the country from India, after lockdowns there left them without work or income.
“People are coming home because there is nowhere to go and it’s not necessarily safe,” Christie Getman, country director of Mercy Corps in Nepal, told NBC News.
Getman said Nepal expects as many as 400,000 seasonal workers to return from India in the coming weeks. But Nepal does not have enough Covid-19 test kits to screen everyone who crosses the country. In fact, at one of Kailali’s busiest border crossings, there are only enough kits to test 250 people every day. So only those who have symptoms are tested.
Adding to this concern is a new variant, B.1.617, which is now dominant in India and considered to be more transmissible and possibly resistant to some treatments.
“These new variants came very quickly,” Getman said. “What is particularly surprising and unexpected is how more virulent they are and how more and more people are getting sick.”
The surge in cases is overloading an already fragile health system that does not have enough ventilators, oxygen or even doctors to care for the sick. In Nepal, there are only eight doctors per 10,000 inhabitants. The United States has more than three times that number, according to the WHO.
“Health care centers are at their maximum capacity and therefore people are unable to find a hospital bed,” Getman said. “Even my own staff at Mercy Corps, when we had sick staff, they couldn’t find a doctor over the phone.”
This is something Niko Ruwe, an American living in Nepal, saw unfolding around her.
“They are very overloaded,” Ruwe said. “There are no fans. There aren’t enough masks or protective clothing for nurses and there certainly aren’t enough doctors and nurses here to deal with it.
Enchanted with the culture and beauty of the country, Ruwe said she did not want to leave, even though she was not vaccinated, like most of the country, which was forced to stop its vaccination program because it was in short of vaccines. We do not know when they will be able to have more. Only 1 percent of the country had received two doses. About 7% have had one, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
The once bustling streets of the country’s capital, Kathmandu, remain quiet. The city and much of the rest of the country are under lockdown, as the country works to bring the virus under control. But now many are wondering if these measures are too few, too late.
“The projection modeling rates show us as potentially having a more serious impact than India,” Getman said. “Our health infrastructure is nowhere near as strong as India. Nepal does not have to turn into India if we act quickly.”