Taking into consideration the past gaffes, the government needs to make a long-term plan in coping with a possible third wave of the pandemic. First, the government should be prepared to close all the border entry points as soon as the threat prevails. Simultaneously, a rapid action task force comprising public health experts should be formed and a systematic vaccination approach implemented
The pandemonium of the second wave of COVID-19 over the last two months has shattered the already fragile Nepali health system – and that amid a political crisis. The second wave resulted in a sudden spike in the number of infections and fatalities since mid-April; apparently, just months after Nepal appeared to have the pandemic well under control. The data revealed by the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) showed an average of 316 infections per day and no deaths in the first half of April. The infection rate picked up nine-fold in the second half of April, with a daily average of 2,742 positive cases.
The frequency of infections skyrocketed in May with an average of 8,068 daily infections. The fact that Nepal recorded 4,359 deaths in a two-month period (April and May) in contrast to a total of 3,021 deaths from March 2020 until the end of March 2021 depicts the havoc caused by the second wave of COVID-19.
The data further revealed that the younger population, which was largely unaffected during the first wave, is now being severely infected. In fact, only 24,502 children and young adults under the age of 20 years were infected during the first wave that spanned for more than a year. In contrast, a staggering 25,898 individuals of this age group tested positive in a span of just two months, April and May. This seems to be an indicator of higher infectiousness of the new variants of the virus. Studies have identified the same two strains of the coronavirus in Nepal that were reported in India. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named these variants 'delta' and 'kappa', respectively.
The government seemed to have ignored the stern warnings of experts on a possible upsurge in frequency of infections after the emergence of the second wave in neighbouring Indian states.
Even the concerned authorities failed to make necessary preparations for the unprecedented second wave during the time when there was a lull in infections; the political instability added to its woes.
The critics are of the opinion that the government let its guard down when infections were low in the country. The social, political and religious activities went on ruthlessly for many months while businesses opened in full fledge after the first wave.
Moreover, the political leaders seemed to have taken the issue very lightly.
The Prime Minister himself was harshly criticised by intellectuals for constantly playing down the risk of the pandemic and suggesting the citizens to treat the virus with hot water, guava leaves, ginger and turmeric powder.
In light of these lapses, the emergence of a second wave of COVID-19 was always on the cards for Nepal.
This took a severe toll in a very fragile Nepali health care system. As per the data released by the MoHP in May, Nepal is currently struggling with only 11,000 beds with oxygen supplementation, 1,600 ICU beds and 700 ventilators for about 30 million people. Moreover, a large portion of these amenities is available in Kathmandu or in major cities; the people in the rural parts are devoid of the basic health facilities.
More than two months into the second wave now, Nepal is still battling the extreme deficit of oxygen supply, hospital beds and other medical equipment required for COVID-19 treatment. As government resources were not enough to cope with the pandemic, Nepali officials have called for international assistance to grapple with a shortage of oxygen cylinders, concentrators, medicines and vaccines.
Although the second wave of COVID-19 could not have been averted completely in Nepal, the devastation it has caused could have been abated to some extent. The government should have acted swiftly as soon as the infections soared in India. The restrictions on social, political and religious activities should have been stiffened and the boarder entry points in the south should have been scrutinised for infected individuals seeking entry into Nepal.
Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Vaccination has apparently been proved to be an important speed-breaker in containing the infection rates of COVID-19. Initially, the inoculation programme got off to a good start in Nepal after receiving one million doses of Covishield vaccines from India. However, the initial pace of vaccination could not be maintained.
In fact, a large number of people who had received the Covishield in the first lot have already surpassed the recommended deadline for the second jab. Nepal is still waiting for 1.7 million doses of the Covishield vaccine.
Lately, the government is working persistently in importing the new lot of the vaccine from different channels, as well. Learning from the experiences from the past, the concerned authorities should implement an appropriate strategy for execution of an effective vaccination approach once the new consignment of vaccines arrives.
Taking into consideration the past gaffes, the government needs to make a long-term plan in coping with a possible third wave of the pandemic. First, the government should be prepared to close all the border entry points as soon as the threat of the spread of the virus prevails.
Simultaneously, a rapid action task force comprising public health experts should be formed, and the concerned authorities should act according to their suggestions.
The vaccination approach should be implemented systematically so that the people receive both the jabs as per the priority list and not through connections.
For this, a pandemic impact assessment of the first and second waves of COV- ID-19 will be helpful. On a positive note, by implementing an appropriate pandemic response strategy, we will be able to ward off the ongoing mayhem of the COVID-19.
A version of this article appears in the print on June 30 2021, of The Himalayan Times.