India’s Covid catastrophe hits Nepalis hard

Nepali family living in Goa for the past 10 years: Amar Tiruva and his wife Radha with their daughter, Antara. Radha died this week, and Amar is in a ventilator. Antara is being cared for by a neighbourhood church.

Amar Tiruva and his wife Radha have been living in Goa for the past ten years. They have an 11-year-old daughter, Antara.

The family was happy in the former Portuguese enclave, with a comfortable job in the city. Although they had been feeling the impact of the pandemic, everything changed two weeks ago.

Both Amar and Radha, who are in their thirties, tested positive for Covid-19. As their condition worsened, the couple was admitted to Goa Medical College for treatment, while social workers from a neighbourhood church looked after Antara.

On 24 April, Radha succumbed to the virus, and Amar’s condition is getting worse. He is unconscious in a ventilator, unaware that his wife has died. It took three days for volunteers to cremate Radha’s body because of the long queue at the crematorium. 

Antara has been told that her mother did not make it, and is distraught. Amar’s 80-year-old mother in Nepal’s Kailali district is herself not in good health. She prays for her son’s recovery, and feels helpless so far away, says Amar’s nephew Kamal who lives in Mumbai but cannot go to Goa because of the travel restrictions.

The Tiruva family’s struggle and tragedy is just a drop in India’s vast ocean of grief as the Subcontinent is engulfed in the Covid-19 second wave. India is recording more than 300,000 new cases every day for the past five days (see graphs below), and the official death toll this week exceeded 200,000. However, public health experts say these figures are a gross underestimation.  

There are an estimated 3 million Nepalis working all over India, but the number could be higher since no records are kept of seasonal migrants. Officially, 40 Nepalis have died in the current Covid-19 surge in India, with 100 hospitalised, but that number is certainly much higher.

The Nepal Embassy in New Delhi has been inundated with calls for help, but has been able to do little more than issue a statement asking Nepalis in India to observe all health precautions since the hospitals are all full. 

Ambassador Nilambar Acharya says he has also been lobbying with the Indian government to lift the export ban on the Covishield vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India.

The India connection in Nepal’s COVID-19 status, Nepali Times

India gifted Nepal 1 million doses in February, and Nepal paid for 2 million more doses, but only half the consignment arrived before India diverted vaccines to address its own emergency. Ambassador Acharya said, “The Indian government has assured us that it will put Nepal on a priority for vaccines.”

R B Khadka of the Akhil Bharat-Nepali Ekata Manch maintains a network of Nepalis all over India, and had been helping those in need since last year. But he says the scale of the crisis this time is too big to handle, adding that with the shortage of hospital beds, oxygen supply for Indians, there is little hope for Nepalis, particularly poorer migrant labourers.

“I am getting calls day and night from desperate Nepalis asking if I can arrange an oxygen cylinder, a hospital bed or for remdesivir, I have lost hope and I cannot lie to them anymore and say I will try to help,” Khadka told Nepali Times.

Another Nepali resident, Hari Raila, ran a small eatery in Delhi’s Paharganj neighbourhood. His condition had been getting steadily worse, and he was being transported by ambulance to the Nepal border but died on the way in Uttar Pradesh’s Muradabad as he struggled to breathe.

All this week, relatives of another Nepali, Bishnu Paudyal, had been trying unsuccessfully to get him admitted to a hospital in the suburbs like Guragaon, Ghaziabad and Faridabad. But he couldn’t get a bed, and died from lack of oxygen in his blood on Tuesday.

Some Nepalis like Raila are even being taken to Nepal, in the belief that things are better there. Others have been heading to hospitals as far as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. But private hospitals charge as much as IRs500,000 to IRs2million to admit patients. Ambulances cost IRs15,000 to take patients to hospital, and few Nepalis can afford that. Remdisvir is selling for Rs20,000 per dose in the black market. 

From Mumbai, Kamal Tiruva says he would like to take his nephew back to Nepal from Goa, but knows it is impossible.

Indians use Nepal to circumvent travel bans, Nepali Times

On 26 April, the New Delhi-based South Asian University issued a notice to all students to evacuate its hostel. Some Nepali students have no alternatives, and have stayed on despite having tested positive.

“Although the University has issued a notice, there is nowhere to go,” says Bipin Ghimire, a PhD student of International Relations, who says hospitals this week turned back Nepali students who were sick. “We saw patients in stretchers waiting in the corridors, doctors were attending to them outdoors.”

Ghimire continues to self-quarantine in the hostel itself, but Makan Tamang along with three other Nepali students decided to travel to Nepal via Gorakhpur because one way air tickets now cost Rs50,000.

“I am happy that I am going home,” Tamang, who is from Melamchi, said on the phone while on the highway, “but I am worried about what will happen at the border.”

Suresh Raj Neupane has been in New Delhi for the past three years as the India correspondent for Nepal's Kantipur newspaper.  He finds it unfair that even though there are more Nepali workers in India than in the Gulf and Malaysia combined, the government back home does not care much for them.

“It is unfortunate that Nepalis working overseas are given more emphasis despite the Supreme Court’s ruling to assist Nepali workers in India,” says Neupane, who has been covering the plight of Nepalis here. “India is actually the biggest source of remittances for Nepal, with workers sending home Rs130 billion a year.”

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Nepalis caught between helpless states

The Nepal Embassy in India has assured Nepalis that those with the Aadhar identity card and a permanent address in India are eligible for the vaccines, but many Nepali labourers say they have been denied vaccines due to the lack of documents. 

Anoo Bhuyan, health reporter of the portal India Spend who has been reporting on the Covid-19 second wave, says,What has happened in India is a humanitarian crisis and the government of India should have been more proactive and accountable for their actions in curbing the virus.”

She says that since the lockdown, all the vaccination centres have been shut and while the government has pledged to roll out vaccines for those under 45 by 1 May, it has been trying to hide the fact that there is a shortage of vaccines, as well as oxygen cylinders and other medical supplies.

Despite India’s shortage, the Nepal government has asked the Indian government to also lift a ban on export of liquid oxygen which some Nepali private importers rely on to fill cylinders.

“Nepal and India have a very special relationship and the border is open, we have to help each other, and we will continue to do so in a time of such a catastrophe,” Nepal's ambassador to India Nilambar Acharya (right) told Nepali Times.

The Nepal Embassy has urged the Indian government to provide the same facilities as Indian citizens for Nepalis workers here for vaccines, tests and treatment.

The former chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah told Nepali Times he will be asking around in his constituency about Nepalis in Kashmir and Ladakh who may be in difficulty. He added, “We will reach out to those who need assistance.”

Read also: The Covid tsunami, Editorial

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