‘Fear and panic’ as COVID ravages Nepalese villages near Mount Everest | Mount Everest News
Kathmandu, Nepal – When Saraswati Tamang Karki fell ill with COVID-19 in a small village near Mount Everest, her family had to call in Nepalese soldiers and hiking guides to help take her to the nearest doctor. .
On June 11, a group of 13 men took turns carrying the 44-year-old on a stretcher, rushing along the narrow, winding dirt roads that lead from the village of Monju to the Pasang Lhamu Nicole Niquille Hospital in the neighboring town. by Lukla.
They made the 15 kilometer (nine mile) trip in less than four hours, but it was too late.
Karki died just before the group reached Lukla.
“We did our best. But we couldn’t save her, ”said Silen Bhotiya, a hiking guide who helped carry Karki. “She was too weak and already on oxygen.”
According to health officials, Karki was the fourth confirmed death from COVID-19 in the Everest region since the end of April, when a Norwegian mountaineer seeking to reach the world’s highest peak became the first person to be tested positive in the region this year.
Residents in the remote area fear many more people will die, however, as COVID-19 is now ravaging villages along the trails to Mount Everest.
Whole households have fallen ill, but there is a shortage of healthcare workers, hospital beds and testing kits. There are only two rudimentary hospitals and five doctors serving the 9,000 inhabitants of the region. About 400 tests have been carried out since the end of April, nearly half of which have come back positive.
“The situation is getting worse by the day,” Bhotiya said. “On our way to Lukla, we saw many sick people making the journey for medical treatment. Some rode horses. Some were carried on the backs of others. We are all scared after [Karki] deceased. “
Outbreak at base camp
Most affected by the latest wave are Lukla, the airport town that serves as the gateway to Mount Everest, and Namche Bazaar, a colorful market town 3,440 meters away where most hikers stop to acclimatize. before climbing higher into the mountains.
But small towns above the tree line are also reeling from the virus.
Pemba Dorjee Sherpa, a mountaineering guide who has climbed Mount Everest nine times, said he tested positive in late May shortly after returning from the main campsite to the base of the summit.
“I had symptoms like a cold and mild body aches. Because these symptoms are common in the mountains, I didn’t really care, ”he said.
The 47-year-old eventually transmitted the virus to his wife and two children, who are now all isolated at home at their home in Pangboche, a village three miles from Everest base camp. Several members of Pemba’s team have also tested positive, and he said 15 of Pangboche’s 100 homes now have confirmed cases.
“There have been no deaths so far, but many people are showing symptoms of coronavirus,” he said.
Local health officials believe tourists have brought the virus to the area.
Nepalese authorities, which canceled last year’s climbing season due to virus concerns, reopened Mount Everest to climbers in February this year, issuing a record 408 permits to those looking to reaching the top and allowing thousands of tourists to enter the surrounding Khumbu valley for several day hikes.
“Many of those infected are climbing guides or carriers or those who have been in close contact with [the tourists]”said Aarti Maya Tamang, health coordinator for Khumbu Pasanglhamu Rural Municipality.” We believe the virus came via Everest base camp. Our settlements are scattered on the way to base camp and several people here work in tourism.
Residents and trekking guides said they expected a number of cases in the area with the influx of climbers and hikers, but said it was the Nepalese government’s failure to enforce health protocols that led to the spread of the virus throughout the region.
“The mandatory PCR test to enter the Khumbu Valley has not been applied to all expedition teams and trekking groups,” said Lukas Furtenbach of Austria-based Furtenbach Adventures. “We had to submit negative PCR test results to get clearance for our shipping permits, but many teams did not have to go through this procedure. “
Indian nationals, neighboring southern Nepal, have also been allowed to enter the Khumbu Valley without PCR testing, Furtenbach said, despite a devastating epidemic that has ravaged hospitals and crematoriums on the Indian subcontinent.
Seven members of Furtenbach’s team at Everest base camp tested positive and he canceled his company’s expedition in mid-May. “The Nepalese government should have ended the season when it was evident that there was a major epidemic in the base camp,” he said.
Authorities initially denied any reports of cases at the campsite and allowed the season to continue, even as the rest of the country was locked up on May 6 due to a wave of infections in the capital, Kathmandu – driven by the variant Delta detected in India – this was causing a shortage of oxygen and intensive care beds.
Nepal has now recorded more than 614,000 cases and 8,558 deaths, the vast majority of which have been recorded in the past two months.
Furtenbach said the government may have allowed the climbing season to continue to protect the local tourism industry. “And that’s good… But by international health standards,” he said, “everyone at base camp should have been classified as contact with someone who tested positive and placed in quarantine.”
A spokesperson for Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation denied allegations of mismanagement of the epidemic.
“We have no information on Indian tourists who travel to the mountains without testing for COVID-19. The protocols were compulsory for everyone, ”said Prem Subedi, spokesperson for the ministry. “We did our best to enforce the rules and keep the climbers safe. “
He added: “The season has been largely successful.”
As Nepalese authorities ordered the Everest base camp to close for everyone except climbers and support staff after the outbreak, tourists told Al Jazeera the virus was spreading already – perhaps independently – in tea rooms intended for trekking groups in the Khumbu valley.
Subedi said he believes “things will get a lot better next season as vaccination gains momentum across the world.”
He added: “It’s still too early, but vaccination could be mandatory for climbers from next season.”
“Everything is in a mess”
In the Khumbu Valley, residents said the government of interim Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli – which recently dissolved parliament amid a bitter power struggle with a faction in his party – was not doing enough to fight against the current epidemic.
“Our main problem is transportation,” said Ram Kumar Tamang, president of Phyafulla Tamang Sewa Samaj, a non-governmental organization in the Everest region. “Since we are not connected to the roads, traveling by plane is our only option in an emergency. And, you must charter the flight in an emergency. It is impossible for the poor to afford such money. It would be a great relief if the government provided free or subsidized flights for poor patients. “
After that, the next step, he said, was to increase testing in the Khumbu Valley and vaccinate those most at risk.
Otherwise, he said, they might not be able to welcome tourists again in October.
“Tourism is our lifeline. But everything is a mess right now. All shops and hotels are closed. If things stay that way, I doubt there will be a season in October. People are already worried about unemployment and hunger. Many families need immediate help. But the government has done nothing so far.
“There is a feeling of fear and panic everywhere. “