Even when different vaccines were undergoing clinical trials, there was much talk about promoting vaccine diplomacy to secure our share

With the second wave of the coronavirus spiralling out of control in the country, the last defence against the disease is undoubtedly the vaccine.

However, after inoculating roughly 10 per cent of the country's 22 million eligible population, vaccines are running out of stock. Nepal's vaccination programme did get off to a good start towards January end, becoming one of the first countries in the world to launch the effort. This was made feasible with the arrival of 1 million doses of Covishield, gifted by the Indian government, on January 21. The plan of the Oli government was to immunise 72 per cent of the country's population aged 14 years and above by May. However, inability to secure the needed quantity of vaccines, both through donations from friendly countries or procurement, has pushed the immunization schedule further and further away. Nepal has also received vaccines from other sources, namely, the Chinese government, which gifted 800,000 doses in March, while Nepal will receive 1.92 million doses in total under the UN's COVAX facility by the end of this month. However, its effort to procure the vaccines in the international market has hit a roadblock.

Nepal needs about 44 million doses to vaccinate 22 million people, but how it is going to source such huge quantities is anyone's guess. What then is holding the government from procuring the needed vaccines? While the government's indecision on how to import the vaccines is faulted, it has come to light that the hefty commissions demanded by the local agents of the vaccine producing companies are blocking all efforts to buy the vaccines.

The local agents have also been demanding that the government pay in advance for the vaccines, as other countries are doing to secure their share. However, the Ministry of Health and Population has been insisting that the local agents forgo their commission and handling fees, which will automatically increase the cost of the vaccines. Since the vaccines are being administered by the government free of cost, it is footing the entire bill of the vaccination programme. So, is government-to-government procurement possible to circumvent the commission-mongers? While the government and the local agents of vaccine producing companies trade barbs over vaccine procurement delay, it is the vaccination drive that is at stake.

With the coronavirus raging across the country, especially in the Kathmandu Valley, the vaccines must arrive here somehow, and it is wrong to hold the country to ransom, either due to the government's indecisiveness or commission greed of local agents of vaccine producing companies. It is also at times like these that the acumen of diplomats to deliver the goods is tested. Even when vaccines were undergoing clinical trial in different countries, there was much talk about promoting vaccine diplomacy to secure our share. So what are our foreign missions doing to help their country at this critical juncture? A fully immunised population will not only keep our citizens safe but also send a positive message to the international community at a time when south Asia is being seen as the new hotbed of a highly lethal variant of the coronavirus.

Uncertain climbing

The rising number of coronavirus cases in the country has dashed hopes of early revival of the mountaineering sector with over two dozen climbers – foreigners and Sherpa guides – testing positive for COVID-19 at the base camps of Mt Dhaulagiri and Mt Everest. As many as 15 climbers were airlifted from the base camp of Mt Dhaulagiri, the seventh tallest peak, in the past two days, while 10 others were brought to Kathmandu for treatment after they tested positive for the virus from Everest Base Camp (EBC) a few weeks ago.

At least 33 foreign climbers along with over 100 support staff have already reached Mt Dhaulagiri base camp to scale the peak during this spring. The Department of Tourism has also issued a record number of 408 permits to climb the world's highest peak for this season. Altogether over 1,500 people have gathered at EBC to summit Everest. EBC has been turned into an isolation zone after dozens of climbers tested positive for COVID-19. As infection from COVID-19 may cause severe health problems in high altitude areas, it is imperative that doctors and expedition organisers take extra precaution to save the lives of the climbers and support staff.

A version of this article appears in the print on May 7, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.