Thick haze adds to Nepal Covid-19 woes

Thousands of revellers thronged to Kathmandu's Darbar Square on Sunday to celebrate Phau Purnima ignoring warnings of a possible second Covid-19 wave and despite hazardous smoke haze that has shrouded the country for days. Photos: MONIKA DEUPALA and AMIT MACHAMASI

After a year of living in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepalis were bracing themselves for a second wave from India, when they were hit by an unexpected disaster: wildfires that have shrouded the country in a pall of smoke for days.

The two crises have converged with the suspension of Nepal’s Covid-19 vaccination drive after India banned the export of the AstraZeneca Covishield doses

Two days after the Ministry of Health warned citizens about wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding crowds to defend themselves against a coronavirus surge, it issued another statement on Saturday telling people to stay indoors to avoid the hazardous haze, and not to venture out unless urgent.

It did not look like people in Kathmandu were paying attention to either warning. Thousands of revellers thronged to Kathmandu’s Darbar Square on Sunday dancing and singing, spraying water and smearing colour on each other to celebrate the festival of colours, Phau Purnima. 

“It depends on us whether there will be another lockdown. Do we continue to mask up and maintain physical distance or start crowding and ignore safety measures?” warns Buddha Basnyat of the Patan Academy of Health Sciences. “Nepal usually tracks India in health trends, so we have to be prepared.”

Public gatherings in light of vaccine shortage can have disastrous results.

Despite the government ban on public gatherings following the second wave in neighbouring India, there have been political rallies and public gathering with people behaving as if the pandemic is over. Kathmandu’s bars, restaurants and malls are packed to the brim. Offices and schools have reopened, and there is little physical distancing.

On Saturday, with 62,714 new Covid-19 cases, India registered the highest daily rise in 2021 with Maharashtra, Chandigarh, Punjab, Goa, Puducherry, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana recording the highest positivity rates. Bihar state neighbouring India is also seeing a surge as workers travel back.

Anticipating another lockdown like last year, Nepali migrants from India have also started returning home. Checkpoints in Karnali, Far-West and Province 2 are overwhelmed with a steady rise in positive cases among returnees, who are being asked to self-isolate at homes.

“We now have a year-long experience of managing Covid-19 and it is time to learn from our previous mistakes and limitations,” says Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at Teku Hospital.

Sameer Dixit of Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal agrees. “While the second wave in India has been limited to fewer states so far and hasn’t resulted in as high a mortality rate as the first time, local governments here must take charge: monitor returnees, their tests and quarantines,” he says.

Despite being one of the first Asian countries to start a Covid-19 vaccination drive in late January, Nepal now has only about 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine in stock, just sufficient for second doses starting 20 April for those who had inoculated in the first phase.

Following the Indian ban on the export of Covishield vaccine before domestic demand is met, Nepal is yet to receive another million doses it purchased from Serum Institute of India. The ban has also delayed the next batch of Covishield shots under the COVAX initiative, which is not expected until May.

A Nepal Airlines plane is finally flying to Beijing on Monday to bring back 800,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine gifted by China, but it will not be sufficient to begin the next phase of vaccination targeted at the age group 55-64.

But if it comes down to it, experts are recommending vaccinating as many individuals in the risk group as possible, even if that means bypassing the second dose for those already inoculated with the first.

Tourists take part in Phau Purnima revelry at lakeside in Pokhara despite fears of a second wave, and even though Pokhara has been shrouded in smoke for the past three days. Photo: KRISHNA MANI BARAL

So far, Nepal has inoculated 1.6 million people and needs to vaccinate 20 million more under its target to immunise 70% of its population. For this alone, the government needs to look into other certified vaccines in the market such as Russian Sputnik V, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Chinese vaccines.

With governments failing to ensure supply, it has become crucial to get the private sector involved to meet demand. The Ministry of Health earlier this month approved letting private companies import vaccines so that those with the resource and willingness can immunise themselves, this is said to involve India’s Covaxin and the Russian Sputnik.