Kathmandu, Nepal- When Saraswati Tamang Karki fell ill from COVID-19 in a small village near Mount Everest, her family had to hire Nepalese soldiers and trekking 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, hurriedly walking around on the narrow winding dirt road leading from Monju village to the nearby town of Pasang Lhamu Nicole Niquille Hospital. Lukla.
They completed a 15-kilometer (9-mile) journey in less than four hours, but it was too late.
Kaki died before the group reached Lukla.
“We tried our best. But we can’t save her,” said Silen Bhotiya, the trekking guide who helped carry Karki. “She is too weak and is already taking oxygen.”
According to health officials, Karki is the fourth confirmed COVID-19 death in the Everest region since late April, when a Norwegian climber seeking to reach the world’s highest mountain became the first in the region to test positive this year. people.
However, residents in remote areas worry that more people may die because COVID-19 is now destroying villages along the trail to Mount Everest.
The whole family fell ill, but lacked medical staff, beds and testing tools. Only two primary hospitals and five doctors serve 9,000 people in the area. Since late April, about 400 tests have been performed, and nearly half of them have tested positive.
“The situation is getting worse every day,” Bhotiya said. “On the way to Lukla, we saw many patients traveling long distances to seek medical care. Some were riding horses. Some were carried on the backs of others. We were all afraid of later [Karki] died. “
Base camp broke out
The most severely affected by the recent surge are the airport town of Lukla, the gateway to Mount Everest, and the colorful market town of Namche Bazaar at 3,440 meters above sea level. Most hikers will do so before heading to higher mountains. Stop and adapt to the environment.
But smaller settlements above the tree line have also been affected by the virus.
Pemba Dorjee Sherpa, a mountain guide who has climbed Everest nine times, said that he tested positive in late May shortly after returning from the main campsite on the summit.
“I have symptoms such as a cold and mild body aches. Because these symptoms are common in mountainous areas, I don’t care too much,” he said.
The 47-year-old eventually passed the virus to his wife and two children, who are now isolated at their home in Pangboche, a village 5 kilometers from the Everest base camp. Several members of the Pemba team also tested positive. He said 15 of the 100 houses in Pangboche have confirmed cases.
He said: “So far, no one has died, but many people have developed symptoms of the coronavirus.”
Local health officials believe that tourists have brought the virus into the area.
The Nepalese authorities cancelled last year’s climbing season due to the virus. In February this year, Mount Everest was again opened to climbers, issued a record 408 permits to those seeking the summit, and allowed thousands of tourists to enter the surrounding Khumbu Valley. Carried out many mountaineering activities. -Sky trek.
“Many of the infected people are mountain guides or porters, or people who have close contact with these people. [the tourists]”,” said Aarti Maya Tamang, Health Coordinator of Khumbu Pasanglhamu Rural City. “We believe the virus came from the Everest base camp. Our settlements are scattered on the way to the base camp, where several people are engaged in tourism. “
Residents and trekking guides said that they expected some cases in the area with the influx of climbers and hikers, but said that the Nepal government’s failure to implement sanitation procedures caused the virus to spread in the area.
Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures, based in Austria, said: “Not all expeditions and trekking groups enforce PCR testing into the Khumbu Valley.” “We have to provide negative PCR test results to get our expedition license, but there are many teams. There is no need to follow this procedure.”
Furtenbach said that despite the devastating outbreak in hospitals and crematoriums in the Indian subcontinent, nationals from neighbouring India in southern Nepal were also allowed to enter the Khumbu Valley without PCR testing.
Seven members of Furtenbach’s team at Everest base camp eventually tested positive and he cancelled the company’s expedition in mid-May. He said: “The Nepalese government was supposed to end this season when there was an apparent large-scale outbreak in the base camp.”
The authorities initially denied any case reports in the camp and allowed the season to continue, although the rest of the country entered a strict lockdown on May 6 due to a surge in infections in the capital Kathmandu-which was caused by the delta variant found in India- -This leads to a shortage of oxygen and intensive care unit beds.
Nepal has now recorded more than 614,000 cases and 8,558 deaths, the vast majority of which were recorded in the past two months.
Furtenbach said the government may allow the climbing season to continue to protect the local tourism industry. “This is good… but according to international health regulations,” he said, “everyone in the base camp should be classified as a contact of someone who tested positive and be quarantined.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation of Nepal denied the allegations of improper handling of the epidemic.
“We don’t have any information about Indian tourists going to the mountains without being screened for COVID-19. The agreement is mandatory for everyone,” said Ministry spokesperson Prem Subedi. “We try our best to enforce the rules to ensure the safety of climbers.”
He added: “This season has been largely successful.”
Although the Nepalese authorities did order the Everest Base Camp to be closed to everyone after the outbreak, except for climbers and support personnel, tourists told Al Jazeera that the virus has spread in the teahouses that serve the wider Khumbu Valley hiking group—— Maybe it’s independent transmission.
Subedi said he believes that “as vaccination gains momentum around the world, the next season will be much better.”
He added: “It is too early, but from next season, climbers may be forced to vaccinate.”
‘Everything is a mess’
In Khumbu Valley, residents said that the government of Caretaker Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who recently disbanded parliament in a fierce power struggle with a faction in the party, is not doing enough to deal with the current epidemic.
“Our main problem is transportation,” said Ram Kumar Tamang, chairman of Phyafulla Tamang Sewa Samaj, an NGO in the Everest region. “Because we don’t have roads, in an emergency, traveling by air is our only option. Also, you must charter a flight in an emergency. The poor cannot afford such money. If the government ensures that free or subsidized flights are provided for poor patients , That would be a great relief.”
He said that after that, the next step is to increase Kumbu Valley testing and vaccinate the most dangerous people.
Otherwise, he said, they may not be able to welcome tourists again in October.
“Tourism is our lifeline. But now everything is in a mess. All shops and hotels are closed. If things continue like this, I suspect there will be a season in October. People are already worried about unemployment and hunger. Many families are in urgent need of assistance. But. So far, the government has not taken any action.
“There is fear and panic everywhere.”