Omicron is coming to Nepal, be prepared“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Be it by naïveté, misplaced optimism, or a great faith in the healing powers of Himalayan air and turmeric, no one in Nepal had expected that we would be in the global epicentre of the Covid-19 surge fuelled by the Delta variant in the spring of 2021.
Our miscalculation and gross lack of preparation cost thousands of lives and left so many Nepalis bereaved during this Dasain and Tihar. Shortly after the Indian wave began in March, Nepal recorded the highest number of Covid cases per capita, and the worst viral transmission rates on the planet. While the world focused on India, Nepal's health system was overwhelmed in a matter of days.
Remember how we desperately searched for oxygen cylinders, when every ICU bed was occupied and ventilators were in short supply? Remember rural communities where the situation was even worse, and so many Nepalis died without any medical attention? And there was the black market that forced many to pay exorbitant rates for life-saving oxygen, masks, and even paracetamol.
We cannot afford to forget these terrible and deadly months. If we do, and do not prepare for the next wave, we will be bound to repeat them. With the Omicron variant now spreading like wildfire across the globe, let us remind ourselves that Nepal experiences a surge in Covid cases a few months after the rest of the world. The Delta variant (which has been proven to be less transmissible than Omicron) took more lives in just a few months than the 2015 earthquakes.
The current low case numbers in Nepal are not going to last. Repeating our mistakes of under-preparedness and apathy has the potential to kill thousands of more Nepalis in the coming months.
While preliminary data shows that the Omicron variant is less likely to hospitalise infected individuals than Delta did, we need to take into account that this new variant spreads at a much faster rate. The relief we may feel from a smaller percentage of Covid patients needing life-saving care is cancelled out by there being an exponentially higher number of total infections.
Our medical facilities will still be overwhelmed, leading to unnecessary loss of life on a large scale. In short, Omicron is not to be underestimated, especially for densely populated communities in Nepal.
We still have some time to prepare. Policy makers and individuals alike have important roles to play in the critical next weeks and months. We cannot squander this opportunity to save lives. National and local governments need time to act now on these critical areas:
- Vaccinate Aggressively: There are varying statistics on the percentage of Nepalis vaccinated, but no more than 40% of the population have been fully vaccinated. Booster shots are now necessary to adequately protect a population, so we still have a very long way to go.
The good news is that even if we cannot fully vaccinate and provide boosters for the entire population, clinical experience shows that vaccinated individuals have less need for Covid-19 hospitalisations and are much less likely to die from the Omicron variant. Decision makers can make our limited vaccine supply go further by prioritising vaccines for densely populated cities and in areas where Delta infection was low, as people in these areas are less likely to have natural immunity.
- Border Control: The devastating wave of the Delta variant in Nepal began a few weeks after it had taken hold in India. This was largely attributed to a spillage of the virus through the open southern border. We can support municipalities along the border to help contain the Omicron by strict health desks to screen individuals crossing the border. This will require increased funding and other resources.
- Isolation and Quarantine Centres: Delta spread from India and urban areas into the countryside because we could not properly accommodate and care for infected patients in quarantine and isolation centres. There is time to re-establish these facilities before the next wave hits, and train frontline health workers and local governments based on guidelines that already exist. Again, as the variants (and our knowledge about them) evolve, we need to remain agile and empower our managers and healthcare workers to address the changing ground situation.
- Oxygen Supply: During and after the Delta wave last year, the Ministry of Health and Population made commendable efforts to expand oxygen plant availability in the country, with support from international aid groups. These new plants need to be brought online and tested in the coming months, and MoHP must accelerate its efforts to meet its own requirement of having an oxygen plant at every 100 bed-hospital in the country.
- Using Female Community Health Volunteers: FCHVs have been a key for many of Nepal’s remarkable gains in public health, including reducing maternal mortality rates. This network of local health workers was not fully deployed during the last Covid wave. We can use FCHVs to disseminate public health information, vaccine knowledge, and to play a frontline role in enforcing community guidelines to reduce local transmission of the virus, and to care for the infected. These volunteers and other community-based health workers need to be adequately compensated, and equipped with materials, protective equipment, and training.
Properly mobilising and empowering FCHVs is the fastest and most efficient way to support rural communities that lack other options for advanced care. This will have a ripple effect across the national health system, and may be a key factor in avoiding another total collapse. All of these steps depend on implementation by the government and private healthcare system. We commend recent steps taken by the health department to test Nepalis returning from India, and to establish quarantine centres along the border.
As individuals, we must continue to take responsibility for protecting our loved ones by following public health guidelines for another few months at least. History shows we will not know for certain that Omicron has arrived in Nepal until after the variant is endemic in the population. These proactive measures can slow the spread, starting now:
- Mask up in all public places and when in close contact with members of at-risk populations. Doubling up on masks is a good idea, given the extremely contagious nature of Omicron.
- Avoid touching the face with fingers, and frequently wash hands - at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
- Avoid all public gatherings. If not, maintain social distance of at least 1m.
- Support the local government by following protocols and encouraging elected officials to take proactive measures to protect the community. Volunteer to spread awareness or set up facilities if you can, and be ready to support your community when the next wave arrives. We Nepali are great at using ‘source-force’ to get things done - now is a great time to use your connections and networks to encourage people in positions of influence to take proactive steps to prepare for Omicron.
In the age of Covid, it’ is every country and every community for itself. Delta taught us in Nepal not to trust promises of international aid to save us from the pandemic. We are on our own, and we only have each other to get through this.
The Delta wave, like the 2015 earthquakes, also taught us that when the going gets tough, Nepalis come together and achieve miracles. Remember the community groups that blossomed across the country to create isolation centres, distribute food and supplies, and invented improvised oxygen concentrators.
Remember the FCHVs and community members who risked their lives to travel into every corner of the country to deliver vaccines to the most vulnerable citizens. This time, we have an opportunity to harness this grit and compassion when it is needed most - before the disaster strikes.
Ramu Kharel is an emergency medicine physician at Brown University and has worked extensively in the frontlines of Covid-19. He runs a non-profit organisation HAPSA in Nepal that is working on Covid response.
Ben Ayers is an American citizen based in Nepal for over 20 years.