Second Wave of COVID-19 hits Nepal hard: do not falter, but show the way

Trekkers in Nepal during the pandemic
Trekkers in Nepal during the pandemic … it was all go until it was too late

Finally, everyone is worried

The first wave came in 2020 and people got sick. Tourism stopped. Over the past year Nepal met the pandemic with its typical resilience. The 2015 earthquake is still in many peoples minds. To this day people are still waiting for promised aid to rebuild their houses. Others knew it wasn’t coming and simply moved on to rebuild with rubble. Much the same happened with the first COVID-19 wave. Many people were left thinking “It wasn’t so bad” … and that was the first mistake.

The center of Thamel is once again under lockdown
The center of Thamel is once again under lockdown

Nepali resilience over the past year meant tightening belts. Going home to work in farms. Hanging on with half salaries. Getting new jobs. Thinking a few sick older people passed away along with a few unlucky ones. Many people wondered why people in the USA and Europe were dying so easily during the mid and latter part of 2020. An air of “We are immune” took hold in Nepal. That was the final mistake.

Towards the end of April 2021 COVID-19 variants that had devastated the USA and Europe had swept across the sub continent relatively quietly by media standards. The rest of the world was concentrating on their own COVID efforts when Pakistan began raising the alarm. Still the news remained quite. Then India’s medical system buckled. 24 hour funeral pyres caught the worlds attention. Now within weeks the same thing is happening in Nepal.

Unprepared, too lax, and divorced from reality

With COVID-19 running rampant across the world how did India or even Nepal get taken by surprise like this? The question is answered with a wobble of the head. Even world scientists could not explain how, since the start of the global pandemic, had Nepal and India not been more seriously affected? Numbers of deaths and infected people remained incredibly low while powerful countries like the USA, Russia and across Europe the virus created devastation.

Festival in Janakpur in Nepal
Festivals continued on in Nepal throughout 2020 and the start of 2021 including here in Janakpur – the first COVID-19 wave was not bad, while Europe and the USA faltered nobody understood why South Asia escaped so well until now.

Doctors and scientists hypothesized that people in Nepal and India might well have had higher immune systems due to multiple vaccines at birth. Or, adding to that exposure to multiple viruses early on in childhood meant immune systems that could tackle COVID-19. This was a way of thinking mixed with Nepali culture that created a false sense of security.

Over the past year many of my Nepali friends kept repeating “we are immune”

This false sense of security backed up by pseudo science was a deadly combination to a culture where the gods favored the loyal with special protection. Nepali and Indian bravado was bolstered by politicians who never took steps to use this time to bolster hospitals and equipment or even to order enough vaccines. Even to require tourists to be vaccinated before arriving was ignored in favor of lucrative, for some, climbing permits. It was a deadly combination that sat in a bubble until last month.

Woman walking on Janakpur Railway
While international media focused on how Europe and the USA were falling to COVID-19 in late 2020 the new variants of COVID-19 that devastated the USA and Europe had been making their way across the world to Pakistan then India and up into Nepal who so far had not been affected due to lockdowns.

News blackouts across the sub-continent

We are not living in the same world as ten years ago. In India there has been a forced crackdown on news agencies reporting the raging pandemic. Social media was blocked from mentioning certain keywords. Meanwhile in Nepal the news was a daily fluster about politics and how the Prime Minister is in trouble one day and the next day how he was going to survive … politically. On Sunday May 9th the Prime Minister struggled in a CNN interview (Source: CNN). On Monday the 10th of May he wrote an opinion column in the Guardian asking for vaccine help (Source: The Guardian). On the same day in Nepal he lost vote of no confidence (Source: The Kathmandu Post).

Trekkers in Nepal
Thinking the worst was over Nepal opened up to “guide only” trekkers and mountaineers in February. Today the wealthy are climbing Everest, trekkers are learning domestic flights and international flights have been cancelled as Kathmandu is forced into lockdown … Nepal’s media is in a frenzy on who to blame.

It was like as if we were living in a science fiction movie about a deadly plague – everything was so surreal yet brutally visceral in its impending outcome

Then, as images started to appear from India about oxygen shortages everything changed. Funeral pyres burning throughout the night. People were dying. COVID-19s second wave had arrived. These were the variants that had come through Europe into Pakistan and were now making their way up to Nepal. There was no movie slow motion here. It was spreading like the wildfires in Nepal that the international media also didn’t have time for last month.

Pashupatinath cremations during the pandemic
During the earthquake there was not enough wood for cremations. During the pandemic there’s not enough space for dead bodies. This is Pashupatinath where bodies have to be brought further up from the main temples as there simply is no room for them.

Within the last two weeks the media has come crashing back to reality as Nepali hospitals realized they too were running out of oxygen. Pashupatinath’s Ghats were filled with burning pyres. I asked if there was enough wood which was a problem during the earthquake.

A caretaker shook his head and said wood was not the problem this time, they simply did not have enough space for the dead bodies.

Nepal’s vaccine program was left to run short

Testing for COVID-19 over the past year has been a sad operation in Nepal. Few people are tested, even more don’t want to be tested for fear of being sick, cast out from a village or worse. Despite some reports by big websites, the reality is little effective testing has been done in Nepal. The numbers simply are not accurate.

In terms of vaccinations things are a little better, but not by much. About 2 million people have at least had one shot of a vaccine. That’s about 7% of the population. It sounds good until you realize that there’s been a blunder somewhere.

Nepali Grandmother and child in village
Many of Nepal’s elderly have been given at least one shot of vaccine in the big cities …. but there’s no more vaccine for a second shot let alone thinking about anyone else

There’s not enough vaccine for the second shot

I’m not sure how this happened. Perhaps the administration in charge of the vaccination thought there would be ample donations of vaccine. It simply means that the second doses for the people that got the first dose were used up. So now there is a massive shortage of the essential second dose. Worse yet is that Covishield (Astra Zenica) which is produced in India is being diverted to help India during their current surge in cases. Meanwhile the Chinese Sinovac shows a lower efficiency and comes with a side cost of insider deals. It’s mind bogglingly frustrating.

All Nepali international and domestic flights have been cancelled

Well, the government allowed two flights per week to Delhi while cancelling everything else. Yes, it created an uproar. I can only presume there is a trade link between India and Nepal and that’s why those flights were allowed while everything else was cancelled. It’s also the middle of the first tourist season in Nepal.

Were there any tourists in Nepal this year? Yes, but official figures are not accurate and we are literally left to guess. Airline figures suggest about 2,700 USA, 800+ China,  680+ Russia, 500 UK, 300+ Ukraine, 219 Germany, 185 Canada, 161 France, nationals came as tourists in April. Keep in mind this does not mean they are trekkers. Many could be diplomats plus families, business visas, NGOs etc. There were also over 13,000 Indian nationals who entered Nepal in April, though considering they do not need a visa or flight to enter it’s hard to imagine how that number is recorded. The country opened up to tourists who booked through tour operators only recently so no independent travelers were allowed.

Girl at village in Nepal
Remote villages continue on as normal. These are places with no health centers let alone thoughts of getting vaccines there.

Many are saying that those at the top in Nepal who have many business interests only opened up to allow an influx of cash to come in through their own tour businesses which were allowed to run while independent tourists were not allowed to arrive.  Now that idea seems to have backfired with many of these favored tourists now being left stranded until flights can be arranged to allow them home. It’s also peak Everest Climbing season and that too has been a disaster.

COVID-19 outbreak at Everest Base Camp

An outbreak of COVID-19 has been reported at Everest Base Camp with a Norwegian climber testing positive after being sent to Kathmandu. News here is being tightly guarded. There have been reports that climbers have had walkie talkies and transmitters confiscated at base camp to stop bad PR from leaking out. Yet I’ve heard many Nepali on the phone from Base Camp saying there’s no issue. Climbers who have made contact have reported more coughs and fevers than usual. These coughs come with fevers which is not normal for typical acclimatization type coughs.  Climbs are underway though and “officials” state there is no COVID-19 outbreak at base camp which contradicts what several climbers are saying. There are about 300 climbers, plus support teams up there at the moment.

This week there are over 300 mountaineers trying to summit Mount Everest … that doesn’t include support staff or guides

The Guardian managed a pale article about it but the facts and figures are simply not available to anyone. In Kathmandu there’s a rallying cry that the climbers should return back with their oxygen cylinders to help the overloaded hospitals. More people are questioning why or how COVID-19 got to base camp if all the quarantines and PCR tests were adhered to. The climbers are climbing on.

View of Everest Base Camp
I don’t think it was a mistake to open up Nepal to tourists – it was a mistake not to enforce the rules. There are conflicting reports from Everest Base Camp from mountaineering groups – some say there’s a no COVID-19 outbreak there, others say there is. The evidence strongly suggests it is there. Why was the climbing allowed to continue on when Nepal went into lockdown, cancelled flights etc? The answer is simply that there’s too much money and bravado at risk, something that is not acceptable when everyone else is suffering. There will no doubt be special flights put on for the wealthy when they come down from their climb.

The reality once again is that quarantines in Nepal are not adhered too. The worry for me is that now there is the very real issue of a COVID-19 variant spreading in the remote Solukhumbu region yet nobody knows for sure. Again, there are the testing kits available so why is this data not out there? Negative or positive the data is in someone’s hands. The idea of vaccinating villagers before allowing tourists in seems to be have fallen silent. Something that would have been the morally correct thing to do. Yet in Thamel, all tourist entrepreneurs have had at least one shot of vaccine. Were the climbers vaccinated before being allowed in? I certainly didn’t hear anything about this proactive requirement.

The news is sure to spread later in the week and next week when climbers ascend Everest: Rich people climbing, while poor people are dying.

On the ground in Nepal

These past two weeks have been an avalanche of heavy news. We went from thinking about the future with a distant light at the end of the tunnel to seeing that tunnel collapse. In hindsight everything was so obvious. I said it from the start, “no one is immune from this, be careful”. Nepali bravado has overstepped its mark. Once again the reality is we are overwhelmed.

Pharmacist in Nepal
The hospitals are full, people go to pharmacists for help but there is no treatment available other than paracetamol … but there are still those that get married with ceremonies as it’s wedding season … so many world’s are colliding at the moment to make sense of it angers many.

This is the same second wave that took down Europe and the USA for 5 months. It is now the clear and present danger in Nepal. As other nations recover it is heartbreakingly painful to see friends family members die of COVID-19 in Nepal and know others who are currently battling the virus. It’s like living in two worlds.

When one world got sick, the other avoided it. Now when one world is recovering, the other world is dying.

Economically things are also getting dire. Last week Himalayan Map House, the largest chain of bookshops in Kathmandu closed their doors. There are simply not enough sales to keep things going. Their first big store went under when a Chinese business out bid their rental agreement. After that everything went into a freefall. It will not be the only one to go under this year.

The future?

Just when you think the first wave was bad, the second wave and dominoes that caused it knocks you back. The scale of this is so big Nepal is once again left with no choice but to rely on vaccination donations. There’s no other way out.

A vial of Covishield
A vial of Covishield

It’s a vicious circle humanity needs to fix. COVID-19 begins in China, spreads to Europe, the Americas, across the world new variants emerge. The virus makes its way back to Asia in the form of the new variants. Now there’s an “Indian variant” that’s heading back out across the planet.

This circle can only be broken with a complete closure of societies or by vaccinations. Take a choice.

Always have hope

With the complete lockdown of Nepal things are bleak. There is hope though. As you know in March I bypassed the impeding Nepali situation and went with an international printer for my Nepal Guidebooks. A wise choice considering where we are now.

I also accelerated the publication of Kathmandu: Signs From The Past, a photography book depicting hand-painted signs from Kathmandu’s iconic streets. Profits will go to help people in Nepal keep some salary who’ve just lost it and in turn keep them inside instead of going out looking for work over the next few weeks as the pandemic peaks. I don’t have vaccines to give, but with this I can help put food on the table of a few, give education about the virus, give people a chance to get through the worst of this second wave.

Nepal Guidebooks on display
I realized there was a problem coming, and switched printing presses – it was a good decision as everything is locked down now, the cargo flights, printing presses, the shops. Add to this bookshops being forced to close and unemployment is becoming huge. This will not stop us!

Next up at the end of this month will be the international publication of my book Kathmandu Valley Heritage Walks. This will mean all my books will once again be accessible to everyone around the world – something that stopped at the end of last year. When Nepal opens up again, we’ll set about printing them in country again too. This is the hope I can give people in Nepal.

No matter the obstacle, we will find a way.  No matter how dark it gets, we will make light. No matter how heavy our load becomes, we can help each other by sharing the strain and to stand tall again.

This is our moment not to falter, but to show the way.

Get my coffee table book to help keep people safe over the next few weeks

I published Kathmandu: Signs From The Past last week in an effort to help those who are in lockdown and can’t work at the moment. Thank you to those who purchased it! We are making a difference and hope to continue making that difference over the worst of this new outbreak of COVID-19. Basically, it helps keep people inside instead of wandering outside looking for work. It also means we’ll be able to print the book in Nepal once things open up. Profits from this book help those who are in lockdown with no government support & who’ve just lost their jobs.

Unlike the Earthquake, it’s not about aid as vaccines simply aren’t available to give. This time it’s just about surviving the worst of this outbreak. This is the only way I think that I can help with immediate affect.


Stack of Kathmandu: Signs from the past books


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8 Replies to “Second Wave of COVID-19 hits Nepal hard: do not falter, but show the way”

  1. It’s strange to see this news come out of Nepal. A government lost in its own world as everyone else suffers it seems.

  2. I remember the earthquake and I remember wondering where all my donations went to. I understand that helping is important but I’d like to make sure it goes directly to the right people. I bought your book just for that. I don’t agree with all these charities and the money they make.

    1. Thanks for your purchase Sam. This time round donation won’t get far in Nepal. If such donations barely made it through during the earthquake I’m not sure how financial donations will help during a pandemic. What’s needed are vaccines and oxygen. It’s one of the reasons I launched the book with the aim of just helping people out for a few weeks until the worst of this is over. Otherwise it tends to create a “dependent” mindset.

  3. Nepal is going through what we have all gone through. One moment we read that the country wants everything from China. Then we read they ask the west for help. I’m not sure this is the best approach.

  4. I bought your signs book, its great. Such wonderful memories. I’m glad you are doing this to help people. Nepal is a mess, no doubt about it.

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