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In April, along with millions of other people, Nepal’s former king Gyanendra Shah, 73, and his 70-year-old wife, Komal, travelled to India for the Kumbh Mela religious festival. There he took a holy dip in the Ganges at Hardiwar and interacted maskless with officials, sadhus and other pilgrims.
On their return to Kathmandu’s airport, hundreds gathered to welcome the couple, who within a handful of days would test positive for Covid-19.
Thousands of Nepali migrants who work in India have returned infected too, and cases have risen rapidly not only in the Himalayan kingdom but in India’s other neighbours including Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Amid fears over India’s catastrophic second wave and more contagious variants of the virus, neighbouring countries have cancelled flights and shut borders, anxious to try to protect themselves from a similar outcome. Many are asking whether they reacted firmly and fast enough.
The neighbour that appears to have been hit hardest to date is Nepal, which has recorded three consecutive days of 7,000-plus new infections, including cases of the double mutant variant first detected in India and the UK variant.
Nepal shares a border – closed for a while during India’s first wave last year – with five Indian states, and large numbers of Nepalis live and work in India.
On Wednesday, authorities extended a lockdown in Kathmandu and surrounding districts by another week as the country recorded its highest daily tolls of Covid infection and death. The health ministry said on Tuesday that a further 7,660 people had tested positive and 55 people had died, out of a population of 24 million.
“The situation is really frightening,” said Prakash Thapa, a doctor at Bheri hospital in Nepalgunj, a city in the south-west plains bordering India.
Scenes in India in recent weeks are being replayed in Kathmandu, with hospitals reporting they are close to being overwhelmed and crematory workers at the Pashupatinath temple, the biggest Hindu shrine in the capital, dealing with a surge in fatalities.
Like other countries in the region, Nepal has been struggling with a shortage of vaccines. “People who have already got the first dose will be in difficulty if they don’t receive their second dose within the stipulated time,” said Samir Adhikari, a health ministry official.
That has led the prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, to urge foreign donors to supply vaccines and critical care medicines to prevent a collapse of the country’s creaky health infrastructure.
Pakistan, too, has been confronting a mounting sense of crisis in recent days and there are fears that the Eid religious festival that marks the end of Ramadan may prompt a fresh surge in infections, as it did last year.
At the start of this week, Pakistan announced it was reducing the number of inbound international flights to 20% of normal service from 5 May and it would extend the Eid holidays.
Last week, Pakistan’s Sindh province detected cases of the South African and Brazil coronavirus variants. On Monday, Pakistan recorded 161 new deaths, its second highest number in the pandemic.
Only about 2 million people have been vaccinated so far in the country of 220 million, the lowest rate in south Asia. Hesitancy about vaccination, fuelled by propaganda, is proving an obstacle.
Pakistan’s largest public hospital, the Pakistan Institute for Medical Sciences in Islamabad, has run out of beds and its doctors have been barred from talking to the media.
“The situation is awful,” said one doctor, speaking anonymously. “We are exhausting our resources. Most of the non-Covid wards have been turned into Covid wards, yet we don’t have any space for [incoming] patients. We need more nurses, medicines, and above all we need space. We need experts and critical care doctors.
“First and foremost, we have not imported enough vaccines and there is hesitancy among some to get themselves vaccinated,” the doctor added. “It is necessary for the authorities to prevent the situation becoming like India. We should go for a lockdown, educate people to vaccinate. Otherwise we may see chaos in the country.”
The rapid spread of infections from India is also causing alarm in Bangladesh, where authorities have closed borders, recommending they should not reopen until its neighbour’s situation improves.
The surge in infections in Bangladesh began at the same time as India’s second wave, in mid- March. Bangladesh has ramped up testing but struggled with its supply of vaccines, originally counting on the Serum Institute of India, which has diverted doses for India’s use.
Bangladesh has so far received about a quarter of its promised 30m doses and is in talks to import vaccines from elsewhere, including China and Russia.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: India’s neighbours close borders as Covid wave spreads across region | Coronavirus