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Nepal army personnel and health workers wearing personal protection equipment suits transfer the body of a patient who died of COVID-19 into an ambulance outside a mortuary in Kathmandu on May 18, 2021.

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

Hira Shrestha, a 51-year-old shop owner in Kathmandu, started showing symptoms of COVID-19 in late April, when he came down with a high fever, followed by breathing difficulties. Mr. Shrestha took his last breath on May 8, just one day after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We took him to several private and government hospitals, but some were full and there was no oxygen in some and they refused to take my father, who died after some hours,” said Mr. Shrestha’s 24-year-old son, Anil, who has also contracted the illness.

“He was the only breadwinner in the family. Now, we are helpless after his demise,” Anil said desperately. “His life could have been saved if he had got oxygen on time.”

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There are thousands like Anil who have lost loved ones in Nepal, which is in the grips of a devastating second wave of COVID-19 that first engulfed neighbouring India.

While India’s second wave alarmed the world, the situation is just as dire in Nepal, prompting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general, to recently express concerns about the country’s unfolding crisis.

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the Himalayan country of more than 28 million. Nepal is now seeing more infections per million than India, with about 9,000 new cases reported daily, up from fewer than 200 in the first week of April. The test positivity rate in Nepal is 45 per cent.

The surge in cases is creating bigger cracks in Nepal’s fragile health care system, pushing it to the brink. Hospitals are overloaded with coronavirus patients and do not have enough ventilators, oxygen or even doctors to look after the sick.

The country also issued an unprecedented plea during what is the busiest time of year for mountain climbers descending on Nepal to climb Everest and its neighbouring peaks: It has asked climbers to bring back their oxygen canisters instead of abandoning them on mountain slopes.

Several hospitals in the capital are at full capacity, leaving them no choice but to turn away patients, who often die helplessly in their homes and outside hospitals while they wait for admission.

“Every day we see more deaths due to coronavirus, and it is so devastating,” said Sanjay Pandit, a doctor in a Kathmandu hospital. “I feel like we are in a battle zone, but we are so helpless.”

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A COVID-19 patient is administered medical oxygen outside an emergency ward at a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 18, 2021.

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond the capital, the battle to contain COVID-19 is evident in areas close to Nepal’s border with India. Recently, 16 patients died in a hospital in the southern district of Rupandehi after their ICU ran out of oxygen.

The district of Banke, bordering India, has become one of the worst-hit areas outside Kathmandu. An average of 10 people die of COVID-19 every 24 hours, according to local media reports.

“The situation is frightening and out of control,” Prakash Thapa, a doctor at Bheri Hospital in Nepalgunj, told local media. He said the hospital is flooded with patients requiring ventilators and intensive care.

Many in the country are blaming the surge in cases on Nepalese workers returning home from India after lockdowns there left them with no work or income.

Public anger has also been directed at the government over its handling of the second wave, with critics saying it is more preoccupied with its political survival than the health crisis.

Nepal has vaccinated 1.9 million people since it started a campaign in January – less than seven per cent of the population. The country had been relying on India for vaccines, liquid oxygen and other medical supplies. It ordered two million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from its neighbour earlier in the year, but India’s pandemic struggles put a stop to exports of supplies and vaccine doses.

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“The international community should support Nepal to address this emergency by providing immediate assistance for diagnostics, vaccines, medicines and essentials such as oxygen,” said Rajesh Sambhajirao Pandav, the WHO’s representative to Nepal.

While Nepal waits for much-needed help, thousands are left with little hope of their loved ones getting through the fight of their lives.

“If my father had gotten both doses of the vaccine, he could be alive today,” said Anil.

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