As Covid-19 cases rise, Nepal stops all flights

Nepal’s government decided on Sunday to suspend all domestic flights from Tuesday morning and international flights from 5 May midnight, as daily Covid-19 cases rose to an all-time high.

The Covid-19 Control and Management Committee had recommended these measures as the number of new cases and daily fatalities continue to spike in the country, with Kathmandu Valley especially badly affected.

The government is also expected to announce further restrictions on the two-week lockdown that it announced on 29 April. There was still heavy movement of people and traffic in the streets of the capital despite the lockdown because of the exceptions for people with passes. The district administration is said to be planning to stop issuing travel passes for all but the most urgent work.

“Keeping in mind the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the country, the government has decided to suspend all domestic and international flights till mid-May, and only allow chartered flights,” said government spokesperson and Communication Minister Parvat Gurung.

Government officials said that although airline travel was deemed safer because of the safeguards in place, passengers needed to get to the airport and many were using public transport and exposing themselves to infections.

The announcement coincided with Nepal’s Ministry of Health revealing the highest-ever daily case count for Covid-19 on Sunday, with 7,211 people showing positive from 16,770 PCR and antigen tests. This represents a 43% positivity rate, the highest in Nepal so far during this pandemic.

There were 27 fatalities recorded in the past 24 hours, bringing the total tally for Covid-19 deaths to 3,325. Altogether 1,612 people recovered from the disease on Sunday, with the number of active cases reaching nearly 50,000 nationwide. 

This is a dramatic rise from mid-march when the number of daily cases had fallen to less than 60, and there were days without any fatalities recorded..

The daily new Covid-19 cases on Saturday, too, was the highest so far with 5,763 testing positive. The Ministry of Health warned over the weekend that hospitals were full, and that the pandemic had gone “out of control”, asking people to strictly observe precautions.

After widespread criticism in the media and from opposition politicians that the government had “surrendered” to the virus, Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi told Nepali Times last week that the administration was doing everything in its power to increase the number of hospital beds, organise vaccines and other medical help from outside.

“We are committed to deal with this pandemic, we are adding 1,000 hospital beds in Kathmandu, but the people must also do their part and protect themselves,” he said. “Our health system cannot sustain this level of infections.”

In the past two weeks, prominent Nepali politicians and public figures have tested positive and have been hospitalised, including former king Gyanendra and queen Komal after returning from India’s Kumbh Mela religious gathering last month. Also testing positive are two cabinet ministers, including Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal and his wife, and UML leader Jhalnath Khanal.

Despite the widening health emergency in the country, the intense power struggle within Nepal’s ruling party continue unabated. Embattled Prime Minister K P Oli, faced with a challenge from dissidents within his own party, has called for a session of Parliament to face a confidence vote on 10 May. 

The announcement was made on Sunday, even as the Chief Minister of Lumbini Province Shamkar Pokhrel, who is an old loyalist, resigned and swore himself in again after the dissident faction tried to unseat him. Scuffles broke out as opposition assembly members staged a sit-in outside the provincial assembly.