The coronavirus outbreak in India has spilled across the border into Nepal, where health officials have warned that hospital beds are unavailable, vaccines are running short and the number of new infections is rising faster than overwhelmed clinics can record them.
The situation is so dire in Nepal that the Health Ministry in the Himalayan nation issued a statement on Friday in which, in effect, it threw up its hands.
“Since coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system and hospitals have run out of beds, the situation is unmanageable,” the ministry said after the government recorded 5,657 new infections on Friday, the highest daily total since October.
And with more than one-third of tests returning a positive result, officials worry that the actual number of cases is much higher. Nepalis who are infected but have only minor symptoms have been told to stay home to keep hospitalizations down.
Experts believe the outbreak is being fueled by Nepali migrant workers who returned home in recent weeks from India as lockdowns were imposed there. The 1,100-mile border between the countries is porous, and hardly any of the returnees were tested for the coronavirus or placed into quarantine.
Within weeks, many of them began falling ill.
“Just a few days after returning from India, one of my relatives died in an ambulance,” said Narendra Singh, a local leader from Bajhang, a western district near the Indian border. “More and more people returning from India are getting sick. And the virus is spreading here. We don’t have any quarantine or isolation facilities in the villages.”
Nepal has since closed its border crossings with India, but the virus is already spreading. In early March, Nepal was recording fewer than 100 cases a day. Now, the daily average exceeds 4,000 reported cases, according to a New York Times database.
At the same time, Nepal’s vaccination drive has slowed. India donated one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and Nepal signed an agreement to purchase two million more from an Indian manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India. But India curtailed vaccine exports last month after its outbreak worsened, and Nepali officials say that the company has shipped only half the amount.
As a result, after 1.7 million people out of a population of nearly 30 million received the first dose of the vaccine, only 380,000 have received a second shot.
In late March, China donated 800,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. Nepalis flocked to vaccination centers, prompting some officials to worry that the crowds could spread the virus. This week, the government imposed a new two-week lockdown, bringing vaccinations to a halt.
“We were vaccinating people even as vaccination centers became overcrowded,” said Dr. Jhalak Sharma Gautam, head of the national immunization program. “But we stopped when the government announced lockdown.”
Many Nepalis now wonder if they will ever be inoculated. Ram Kumar Nepali, a sanitation worker in the capital, Kathmandu, has continued his early-morning shifts collecting garbage during the lockdown, usually without any protective equipment.
“I often think I will never get the chance” to be vaccinated, said Nepali, 43. “We have to go around the capital to collect waste even during this terrific pandemic. It’s risky.”