No vax? Ask for Mask.

Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

Much has been said about ‘vaccine apartheid’ and how instead of levelling out rich and poor, it has widened inequities. Nepal today is living proof of this. 

As the government lurches rudderless from one failure to another — nowhere does SARS-CoV-2 have such fertile ground to spread as in Nepal.

The government declared a ‘smart lockdown’ after infection rates dropped, but with only 2.6% of the population vaccinated, the virus is getting ready to pounce back. In 2020, the first wave actually started only after the lockdown was eased and lifted. It can happen again.

The Delta variant is three times more virulent than the original virus, it rides unvaccinated hosts in crowded places, who do not wear masks, and do not have access to adequate healthcare. It has mutated into an even more dangerous Delta+ strain.

Prime Minister K P Oli and four health ministers who have served under him in the past year have cried wolf with sweeping promises of “full vaccination in a few months”. 

We have also heard promises from the US President, G-7 and Team Europe of a billion of doses, but there is no sign of surplus vaccines being shipped out. The Danes, Norwegians and Czechs want to send Nepal unused Oxford AstraZeneca doses, but Brussels is forcing them to go through COVAX.

A laudable initiative, COVAX has been undermined by its own funders. Its Japan-hosted pledging summit in early June was proof of how quickly a global mechanism with an equity plan can fall apart when national narrow-mindedness prevails over enlightened self-interest. No country is safe from future mutants until everyone is vaccinated. 

We will not even bring up moral and ethical considerations here. Commentators have drawn attention to veterans from the Indian and British militaries who have died of Covid-19 complications in Nepal’s second wave because India did not send vaccines that had been paid for, and Britain sent us loads of PPEs. 

Please spare us more selfies by diplomats at Kathmandu airport posing with yet another ‘relief’ flight full of latex gloves. We know they know that what Nepal urgently needs right now is vaccines that they themselves promised, or are willing to buy. 

Even if, by some miracle, 1.4 million elderly Nepalis get their second doses of Covishield, it looks impossible that we can procure the 40 million doses needed to inoculate 70% of our eligible population even by the end of 2022 at the earliest.

Our government has failed us, the international community has let us down. We better start looking after ourselves in a vaccine-less future.

As if the Covid-19 crisis was happening on a distant planet, the Supreme Court is consumed by hearings on the future of the government. It will decide by next week the fate of Parliament and there isn’t much of a choice: either the current prime minister will get to swear himself in once more, or we will get one who has been prime minister four times in the past 20 years already. 

We cannot expect effective vaccine diplomacy, or needed policy interventions to contain the virus from this inept lot. The daily death toll when the lockdown was announced on 29 April was ten, this week we averaged 35 fatalities a day. Total active cases are higher as restrictions lifted, than they were two months ago. 

And all this is happening even while public health experts warn of a third wave, as the virus mutates in an unvaccinated world. We also know that the official infection and death rates in India and Nepal are underestimated. Excess mortality in the population caused by Covid-19 is said to be much higher than official figures.

Projections by the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle show that on 29 June, when the official fatality tally nationwide was 20, the real death toll from Covid-19 in Nepal was probably closer to 95. 

This week, the official count for the number of people who have died in the pandemic crossed 9,000 — overtaking the total death toll in the 2015 earthquake. But the models suggest that the actual fatalities could be more than 31,000.

At present only 72% of Nepalis wear masks, if that can be raised to 95% as the country opens up, the models show, nearly 1,500 additional deaths due to Covid-19 could be prevented by 1 September.

We have to plan as if there will be no vaccines, and behave as if we are still in isolation. The mantra is: mask up and avoid crowds.

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