Nepal’s growing Covid crisis finds its way to Everest base camp

As country’s cases surge like in neighbouring India, climbers try to salvage the season

Mountaineers, Sherpas and team expedition members  at Everest base camp in early May. Photograph:  Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images

Mountaineers, Sherpas and team expedition members at Everest base camp in early May. Photograph: Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images

 

The coronavirus crisis overwhelming India is wreaking havoc in neighbouring Nepal, where surging cases have pushed hospitals to the brink of collapse and threatened the climbing industry that is crucial to the Himalayan economy.

New infections in Nepal have soared in tandem with India’s, up from 136 confirmed daily cases on April 1st to about 9,000 per day. Many have been unable to obtain medical assistance from Nepal’s overstretched health system, compounded by an acute lack of the breathable oxygen needed by patients in respiratory distress.

“We’ve been seeing younger people dying,” said Dr Roshan Pokharel, a specialist with Nepal’s health ministry. “Unless we get oxygen . . . we won’t be able to manage.”

He stressed that the crisis was rooted in events unfolding in India, with which Nepal shares a long border and close sociocultural and economic ties. Religious pilgrims and migrant workers fleeing lockdowns are among those who have returned to Nepal from India in recent weeks.

Kathmandu and the border regions have been hardest hit. The virus has also found its way to Mount Everest base camp, where about 1,500 mountaineers, porters and support staff have gathered for what was supposed to be one of the busiest climbing seasons ever.

The climbing and trekking industry, centred on the world’s highest mountain in the dramatic Khumbu valley, forms one of the backbones of the Nepalese economy.

30 cases

Lukas Furtenbach, an Austrian who is leading a team up Everest, said the Himalayan Rescue Association, which runs a medical clinic at base camp, had confirmed at least 30 virus infections, although there were rumours of many more cases.

“Every team has different precautions. There’s no official guidelines,” said Furtenbach, adding that his team had shut its camp to outsiders, imposed strict hygiene rules and regular Covid-19 tests.

“For the amount of people [at base camp] the situation seems under control, but this could change quickly if teams don’t follow the safety precautions,” he added.

Nepal has not confirmed the number of virus cases at base camp, but climbers reported helicopters evacuating people with coronavirus-like symptoms off the mountain.

Rojita Adhikari, a Nepalese journalist who tested positive for Covid-19 after returning from base camp last month, suspected the government was reluctant to confirm the extent of the Everest outbreak. “If they accept there’s Covid, they have to cancel [the climbing season] because they cannot put climbers’ and Sherpas’ lives at risk,” she told the Financial Times from Kathmandu.

Pokharel played down the risks and said climbers were tested before they could proceed. “There’s not that significant number of cases” among the mountaineers, he said. “We’re not worried about the climbers spreading it to the community,” he added.

Attempts to conquer Everest have continued this week. At least 150 climbers had reached the summit by Tuesday, according to Alan Arnette, who runs a closely followed Everest blog.

China, which closed its side of the mountain to foreign climbers this year, last week said it would set up a “line of separation” at the summit to prevent those on the Nepalese route from coming into contact with any of the 21 Chinese nationals ascending the mountain from Tibet.

Furtenbach doubted anyone with Covid-19 would be strong enough to complete the four-day push to the roof of the world. “We won’t see many sick people on the summit,” he said.

Some have criticised the Nepali government and the climbers for encouraging and pursuing mountaineering as a dangerous variant ripped through south Asia.

“It’s stupid for somebody to travel to Everest” during a pandemic, Dr Sunil Sharma, head of surgery at Kathmandu’s Nepal Mediciti Hospital, told the FT. “We mostly feel bad for the local Sherpas.”

Bleak outlook

Despite a lockdown across much of Nepal, new infections are projected to increase further in the coming weeks. Deaths are also rising, with a record 225 fatalities on Wednesday.

Mediciti, which has about 130 people with Covid-19, has stopped accepting new coronavirus patients due to the lack of oxygen and sent some who are ailing to other hospitals.

“We haven’t reached our peak [but] it looks like our health system may collapse,” Dr Sharma said. “There’s a big possibility that within the next 10 days, we have may to raise our hand and say ‘there’s nothing more we can do’.”

The Covid surge was fuelled in part by the estimated 50,000 Nepalis who are believed to have travelled to the Kumbh Mela festivities after India’s government encouraged large-scale participation.

The festival that drew millions of Hindu devotees was also a hotbed of the pathogen. Among those infected was Nepal’s erstwhile king, Gyanendra Shah.

Analysts said Nepal’s government has been too preoccupied with political infighting to tackle the crisis. KP Sharma Oli, Nepal’s prime minister who has appealed for international help, this week lost a no-confidence vote and leads a caretaker administration.

“The political leadership [in Nepal] has been completely disengaged with the health crisis because they were mesmerised by their political squabbles,” said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.