Kathmandu, Nepal – When Saraswati Tamang Karki fell ill with COVID-19 in a small village near Mount Everest, her family had to call in Nepalese soldiers and trekking guides to take them to the nearest doctor.
On June 11, a group of 13 men took turns hurrying the 44-year-old on a stretcher up and down the narrow and winding dirt roads that led from the village of Monju to the Pasang Lhamu Nicole Niquille Hospital in the nearby town of Lukla.
They made the nine-mile drive in less than four hours, but they were too late.
Karki died shortly before the group reached Lukla.
“We did our best. But we couldn’t save her, ”said Silen Bhotiya, a trek guide who helped Karki carry it. “She was too weak and was already receiving oxygen.”
According to health officials, Karkis was the fourth confirmed COVID-19 death in the Everest region since late April, when a Norwegian climber looking to climb the world’s highest peak became the first person from the area to test positive that year.
However, residents of the remote region fear that many more people could die as COVID-19 is now devastating the villages along the roads to Mount Everest.
Whole households are sick, but there is a lack of medical staff, hospital beds and test kits. There are only two rudimentary hospitals and five doctors serving the region’s 9,000 residents. Around 400 tests have been performed since the end of April, almost half of which have been positive.
“The situation is getting worse every day,” said Bhotiya. “On our way to Lukla we saw many sick people who were on their way to get medical care. Some rode horses. Some were carried on the back of others. We are all afraid of it [Karki] deceased.”
Outbreak in the base camp
Worst hit by the recent climb are Lukla, the airport town that acts as the gateway to Mount Everest, and Namche Bazaar, a colorful market town at 3,440 meters where most hikers stop to acclimate before heading higher into the mountains set out.
But also smaller settlements above the tree line suffer from the virus.
Pemba Dorjee Sherpa, a mountaineering guide who has climbed Mount Everest nine times, said he tested positive in late May shortly after returning from the main campsite at the base of the summit.
“I had symptoms like a cold and mild body aches. Since these symptoms are common in the mountains, I didn’t care much, ”he said.
The 47-year-old eventually passed the virus on to his wife and two children, all of whom are now in domestic isolation in their home in Pangboche, a village five kilometers from Everest base camp. Several members of Pemba’s team also tested positive, and he said 15 of the 100 homes in Pangboche now have confirmed cases.
“There have been no deaths so far, but there are many people who have symptoms of the coronavirus,” he said.
Local health officials believe tourists brought the virus to the area.
The Nepalese authorities, which canceled last year’s climbing season due to virus concerns, reopened Mount Everest to climbers in February of this year, issued a record 408 permits to those wanting to climb the summit and allowed thousands of tourists to visit the surrounding Khumbu Valley for several day hikes.
“Many of the infected are climbing guides or porters or those who have been in close contact [the tourists]“Said Aarti Maya Tamang, health coordinator for the rural community of Khumbu Pasanglhamu. “We believe the virus came through Everest Base Camp. Our settlements are scattered on the way to the base camp and several people here work in tourism. “
Local residents and trek guides said they expected the influx of climbers and hikers into the area with some cases, but said it was the failure of the Nepalese government to enforce the health protocols that led to the spread of the virus across the region.
“The obligatory PCR test for entering the Khumbu Valley was not enforced for all expedition teams and trekking groups,” said Lukas Furtenbach from Furtenbach Adventures from Austria. “We had to submit negative PCR test results to get our expedition permits, but there were many teams that didn’t have to follow this procedure.”
Nationals from India, Nepal’s southern neighbor, were also allowed to enter the Khumbu Valley without PCR testing, claimed Furtenbach, despite a devastating outbreak that overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums across the Indian subcontinent.
Seven members of Furtenbach’s team in Everest base camp tested positive and he canceled his company’s expedition in mid-May. “The Nepalese government should have ended the season when it became apparent that there was a major outbreak at base camp,” he said.
Authorities had initially rejected all reports of cases at the campsite and allowed the season to continue, although the rest of the country was severely locked in India on May 6 due to a surge in infections in the capital, Kathmandu – fueled by the Delta variant discovered – this led to a lack of oxygen and intensive care 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 have allowed the climbing season to continue protecting the local tourism industry. “And that’s good … But according to international health standards,” he said, “everyone in the base camp should have been classified as a contact person for a person who tested positive and should have been quarantined.”
A spokesman for Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation denied allegations of mishandling the outbreak.
“We have no information about Indian tourists who go to the mountain without screening for COVID-19. The protocols were mandatory for everyone, ”said Prem Subedi, the ministry’s spokesman. “We did our best to implement the rules and ensure the climbers’ safety.”
He added: “The season has been largely successful.”
While the Nepalese authorities had ordered that Everest base camp be closed to everyone except mountaineers and support staff after the outbreak, tourists informed Al Jazeera that the virus was already spreading – perhaps independently – in the teahouses and the hiking groups in further Khumbu -Tal supply.
Subedi said he believes “things will get a lot better next season as vaccination gains momentum around the world”.
He added, “It’s too early, but vaccination could be mandatory for climbers from next season.”
“Everything is a mess”
In the Khumbu Valley, local residents said the government of Deputy Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli – who recently dissolved parliament in a bitter power struggle with a faction of his party – was not doing enough to combat the current outbreak.
“Our main problem is transportation,” said Ram Kumar Tamang, chairman of Phyafulla Tamang Sewa Samaj, a non-governmental organization in the Everest region. “As we are not connected by roads, traveling by plane is our only option in an emergency. And you need to charter the flight in case of an emergency. It is impossible for the poor to afford such money. It would be a great relief if the government provided free or subsidized flights for poor patients. “
After that, the next step is to increase testing in the Khumbu Valley and vaccinate those most at risk.
Otherwise, they may not be able to receive tourists in October.
“Tourism is our lifeline. But at the moment everything is mixed up. All shops and hotels are closed. If it stays that way, I doubt there will be a season in October. People are already worried about unemployment and hunger. Many families need immediate help. But the government has not done anything so far.
“There is a sense of fear and panic everywhere.”