Nepal Covid Crisis Worsens as Workers Pay the Price


KATHMANDU, Nepal — Ram Singh Karki escaped the first wave of India’s pandemic by boarding a crowded bus and crossing the border home to Nepal. Months later, as the rate of new infections fell, he returned to his job at a printing press in New Delhi, which had sustained his family for two decades and helped pay the school fees of his three children.

Then India was swept by a second wave, and Mr. Karki wasn’t as lucky.

He was infected last month. Hospitals in New Delhi were overwhelmed. When his oxygen level dropped, his manager arranged for an ambulance to take him back to the border. He crossed into Nepal, carrying with him just the clothes on his back — and the virus.

Nepal is now considering declaring a health emergency as the virus rampages virtually unchecked across the impoverished nation of 30 million people. Carried by returning migrant workers and others, a vicious second wave has stretched the country’s medical system beyond its meager limits.

Nepal has recorded half a million Covid cases and 6,000 deaths, numbers that experts believe deeply undercount the toll. Testing remains limited. One figure could indicate the true severity: For weeks now, about 40 percent of the tests conducted have been positive.

The impact is rippling beyond those infected. Remittances from migrant workers have slowed. Tourism and the economy have been damaged.

“Millions of people continue to feel the increasing pressure not just with the direct health impact of Covid-19, but also with food, jobs, medical bills, kids out of school, payback loans, mental pressure, and much more,” said Ayshanie Medagangoda Labe, the resident representative of the United Nations Development Program in Nepal.

“For a month now, India has stopped the supply of medical equipment and medicine also, not just vaccines,” said Suresh Ghimirey, the association’s president.

In some provinces that experienced the return of many migrant laborers in India, hospitals have run out of beds. In Surkhet district, the main provincial hospital said that it couldn’t admit more patients. Small outlying villages are quietly mourning their dead. Testing has been slow.

“Except a few villagers, many are unable to come out and do daily agricultural work,” said Jhupa Ram Lamsal, ward chief of the village of Gauri, where nine people died of Covid over 10 days earlier this month. “The worrying thing is that even symptomatic people aren’t ready for Covid tests.”

Mr. Lamsal said he had recently reached Gauri, which is remote and lacks health facilities, along with a team of doctors to conduct antigen tests. Locals turned down health professionals’ plea for Covid tests, he said, arguing they would be dispirited if they found out they were positive.

“The situation is out of control,” Mr. Lamsal said. “We are hopeless, helpless.”

Mr. Kakri, the printing press worker, hailed from a village in the Bhimdatta Municipality, in Nepal’s western corner. The area of 110,000 people has officially recorded 3,600 infections, according to the health chief there, Narendra Joshi. But lack of measures at the border means that the data may not fully measure the severity.

“More than 38,000 people have returned from one of the two border points in the district since the second wave started in India,” said Mr. Joshi. “It’s hard to manage them.”

Mr. Karki was a high school dropout who went to India to work as a laborer when he was still a teenager, his wife, Harena Devi Karki, said. On his visits home twice a year, he was the life of gatherings — cracking jokes, making fun. The $350 a month he sent home covered his family’s household costs as well as the private school fees of their two teenage daughters and a 12-year-old son.

Even when the lockdown last year meant Mr. Karki was stuck at home for months with no earnings, he insisted the children continue with private school. He would repay the debts once the printing press opened again. He dreamed of seeing his eldest daughter — “she’s the most talented” — grow up to be a doctor.

“I couldn’t complete my studies,” Ms. Karki remembers her husband saying. “Let me eat less, but we should send them to a better school for their education.”

When Mr. Karki received her husband at the border around 2:30 a.m. on April 29, she said, he was frail and lacked the energy to even stand up. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died.

“‘Everything is OK. Go home,’” her husband told her, Ms. Karki said. “But he never came home.”



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