At the Covid-19 frontlines in rural Nepal

Services provided from outside of OPD due to Covid cases. Photos: NYAYA HEALTH NEPAL

Nepal’s rural health system, already underfunded, understaffed and overstretched, is struggling with the enormous added burden of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Having barely coped with the first wave last year, hospitals in the remote mountains of Far-Western Province have found that the variants in the second wave are much more lethal, there are many more patients than before, and more of them require hospitalisation. 

In Achham district the administration declared a lockdown on 3 May, but by then the virus was already spreading within families and house-to-house. Till the day before the lockdown, people were still arriving by the busloads from India, Kathmandu and other cities. Testing and tracing were lax, and they were mingling in the markets. 

On Sunday, Nepal added 8,850 new confirmed infections, bringing total active cases to 88,160. There were 52 fatalities but 26 more died at home. Kathmandu reported 4,198 cases in the last 24 hours. There are 832 people in ICU across the country, and 267 patients on ventilator support.

In the village of Jaygad of Achham, for example, an annual fair with large crowds was being held even as 13 out of 15 sample antigen tests came out positive. The virus was spreading into the remotest villages.

“We have increased awareness programs and testing, and local governments have become more active in the recent days and taken more ownership of testing and information dissemination,” says Janakraj Dhungana at Achham’s District Health Office. 

But many wonder whether it is too late to be disseminating information through loudspeakers on masking and distancing, when patients and families throng ill-equipped hospitals. Dhungana himself admits that there was not enough testing and isolation because of a shortage of kits. 

Like other districts of Far-Western Province, the caseload in Achham is increasing, with 2,183 positive cases and 17 deaths so far. Of this, 511 positive cases and 6 deaths are during this second wave. 

The vaccination drive was also suspended after 3,000 medical personnel and community health workers were inoculated. But 15,000 senior citizens in Achham alone still have not got their second doses yet. 

The government has now asked all hospitals to also treat Covid-19 patients. Bayalpata Hospital in Achham, which is run by the non-profit Nyaya Health Nepal in partnership with the local government, was not a designated Covid-19 hospital during the first wave. This year, it is treating a flood of Covid-19 cases.

“We had set aside an entire wing for coronavirus cases, but there has been such a surge in the past week that we have turned the emergency room into a Covid ward,” says Mandeep Pathak, medical director at Bayalpata Hospital. “We converted five rooms set aside for drug-resistant tuberculosis treatment for Covid patients.”

Bayalpata is currently treating 26 patients with Covid-19, all of them with low oxygen saturation levels, but new cases are being admitted every day. The hospital has also had to reassign eight rooms for Covid-19 patients, including for 14 of its own staff who have tested positive. 

In Dadeldhura Hospital a four-hour drive to the west, all 31 beds are full with Covid-19 patients, and although there are only five ICU beds, 13 patients are receiving intensive care. In the neighbouring district of Doti, it is the same story.

“Even if we have beds, we have no oxygen, it is a vicious cycle,” says Jagdish Bista, Medical Superintendent at Dadeldhura District Hospital. “The most urgent need now is oxygen, and we are also running out of PPEs.” But what worries the doctor more is the 50-70% positivity rate of testing, and what this means for the next two weeks.

For the time being, the nursing staff shortage has been alleviated with new transfers. But Dadeldhura Hospital’s oxygen plant cannot cope with demand, and there are difficulties to get cylinders refilled in Nepalganj and Dhangadi. 

Covid-19 has taken precedence over other cases, apart from emergencies and deliveries. Most patients are in the 30-year-old range, and those turned away seek help in Dhangadi’s Seti Hospital, which is also inundated.

Patients who can get to hospital and get admitted in this remote region are the lucky ones. Local municipalities have built isolation centres, but most are empty because there is no oxygen and no medical personnel, says Devraj Devkota of Panchadeval Binayak municipality.

“Our people prefer to either isolate at home or try to get to a hospital if their condition deteriorates,” he adds. “We have had no help from Kathmandu.”

But Nepal’s cities, including in the capital, are also out of hospital beds and oxygen, so there is little hope for outside help. In fact, a reverse flow is starting: critical Covid-19 patients in Kathmandu are being helicoptered to Jhapa or Kaski where there are still hospital beds with oxygen.

The need in every municipality in the far west is the same: oxygen cylinders, pulse oximeters and testing kits, and additional hospital beds for serious cases.

Says Achham’s District Health Officer Dhungana: “Oxygen is a problem. We depend on Dhangadi and Nepalganj to refill cylinders. They get used up fast, which has made it a logistical challenge.” 

There is also a critical shortage of staff. Despite vacancy notices, there were few applicants for specialised medical personnel even pre-pandemic. For example, although the District Hospital in Mangalsen has ventilators, there is no one to run them, and there isn’t enough oxygen.

Patient referrals to city hospitals offering critical care, or just beds with oxygen, are also complicated. They are also overwhelmed, and there are few ambulances with oxygen for the 8-12 hour journey across mountain highways. 

Ambulances are expensive, and helicopter air lifts are even more costly. Despite this, desperate families have taken loans to try to save family members in critical conditions by air lifting them to city hospitals—often too late. 

Then there are all the other non-Covid trauma patients needing urgent surgery, or maternity cases. With its free treatment, Bayalpata Hospital has served more than 1 million patients from Achham and six surrounding districts of Karnali and Far-West Provinces in the past 12 years. 

Separating Covid-19 and other cases is a challenge for doctors like Mandeep Pathak (pictured right) who do not like to turn patients away. Even though the height of the pandemic this week, the orthopaedic surgeon has performed 15 operations, including on a 13-year-old boy from Kalikot with a fractured leg. In the past month, Bayalpata Hospital has performed 77 deliveries, of which eight were caesarean sections. 

“The staff adjust, innovate, accommodate, reallocate, adapt and have kept working right through the pandemic,” Pathak says.

New health protocols have been adapted to minimise disruptions, and Bayalpata is seeking resources to help with the crisis. There is fear that regular services will be increasingly impacted as the pandemic peaks. 

The lockdown also means that families may wait till the very last moment to take patients to hospitals, by when it is usually too late. Bayalpata Hospital has therefore modified some of its regular services to remote care via phone calls.

Bayalpata Hospital’s community health program, for example, that provides regular group antenatal care to pregnant women has been severely impacted. While the program was offered throughout the first wave, it has been interrupted during the second wave, and staff have had to resort to phone-based counselling and follow-up unless in case of emergencies. 

The fear is that far-flung and traditionally neglected districts like Achham will be the last to get test kits, PPEs, oxygen, hospital beds and eventually vaccines. The progress Nepal has made over decades in rural healthcare is being undone by the pandemic.

 For offers of assistance to hospitals in Far-Western Nepal, contact:

Bayalpata Hospital: [email protected] +977 9851093920  

Dadeldhura Hospital: +977 9858753201 (Dr Jagadish Bista)