Virus fear closes Everest treks again
After confirmation of the first Covid-19 case in Namche Bazar this week, officials of the Khumbu rural municipality have decided to indefinitely shut down the Mt Everest region for outsiders effective Saturday 24 October.
Earlier, a statement had given one day notice and said the region would close on Friday itself. But that would leave many trekkers stranded in the region where the nearest road is a two day walk from Lukla.
Solukhumbu district had been considered Covid-19 free, and hundreds of visitors including climbers from Bahrain Royal Guard expedition team as well as Nepali hikers have been in the area in recent weeks. Foreign trekkers had also started trickling in after Nepal allowed hikers and climbers from abroad after 17 October.
However, the local municipality made it mandatory for airlines flying to Lukla to verify all passengers had PCR negative reporters before boarding in Kathmandu. But residents and officials were shocked when the first confirmed coronavirus case was detected in a 65-year-old man in Namche Bazar on Thursday.
“He had a history of asthma and had come here from Kathmandu two weeks ago with a negative PCR report,” Namche Ward Chair Tshering Penjo Sherpa told Nepali Times. “He was rushed to Kathmandu by helicopter yesterday, and his throat swab test there confirmed that he was carrying the coronavirus.”
Local officials in Solukhumbu have sprung into action, flying in medics from Kathmandu directly to Namche Bazar by helicopter on Friday, when they are planning to collect throat swabs of around 400 people.
Penjo said residents from Khumjung, Khunde and surrounding villages are expected to arrive in Namche for the test. There are also many devotees, congregating at Tengboche monastery for 49 days of prayers for the Rinpoche who died at the age of 86 on 16 October, who may also need to be tested.
“There are many people who are suffering from seasonal flu with the onset of winter, so it may not be Covid,” said Penjo.
The Covid-19 scare has once more thrown the prospect of trekking and climbing in the Everest region this autumn season into uncertainty. It is not clear whether an international expedition on Mt Ama Dablam made up of a Qatari Sheikh with British and the US climbers will go ahead.
The international team has already arrived in Kathmandu, and is said to be in a mandatory seven-day quarantine, according to a tweet by British climber Kenton Cool.
No decision has been made yet on whether and when to allow them entry to the Khumbu region, according to Binod Bhattarai, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Khumbu municipality.
“First of all, we need to conduct tests and see the results,” he said. “In the days to come, we shall closely monitor the situation and decide accordingly. We want to make sure that all residents of this region are safe from the virus.”
To ensure timely return of Nepali trekkers stranded in Khumbu, officials said, airlines have made arrangements to make sure that all the visitors get seats in passenger or empty cargo flights by the
Several domestic airlines had sold bargain round-trip-plus-trekking packages worth as little as Rs14,000 that included roundtrip airfare and four nights of lodging and food.
One Namche resident vented her frustration: “How could they sell the package for so cheap? Did they guarantee that the PCR reports are not fake and all visitors are virus-free? “Now we have a COVID case here, who will take responsibility for this negligence?”