Adventurers looking to scale Nepal’s Himalayan peaks and trek its mountain trails can finally do so for the first time in seven months, as the country reopens to foreigners even as the coronavirus pandemic has left it short of hospital beds.
Foreign visitors are a major source of income for Nepal and the closure has impacted the estimated 800,000 people who work in the tourism industry.
For now the reopening will come with restrictions and mainly be limited to those seeking to to climb or trek its famous peaks. Nepal is home to the eight of the 14 highest mountains in the world, including the tallest, Mount Everest.
“We are not opening the country for all visitors and only mountaineers and trekkers who have taken prior permit will be allowed to come to Nepal,” said Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of Nepal’s Department of Tourism. “We are opening to a sector of visitors who we know we can handle and manage.”
Rather than a visa on arrival, visitors now need to get prior approval, give details of their itinerary, hire a local outfitting company and have health insurance that covers COVID-19 treatment. They are required to take a coronavirus test before leaving their home country, stay for a week in quarantine at a hotel in Kathmandu and then take another coronavirus test before being allowed to go up the mountains.
Local guides, porters, cooks and helpers who will be part of any mountaineering support team will be required to take coronavirus tests and prove they have been living in areas with no infections for the past two weeks.
“We are trying to revive the tourism industry that was badly hit by the pandemic, but we are not taking any changes or any risks,” Tamang said. “We did a test run just recently with a foreign expedition team and now have good idea how to manage the adventure tourists.”
Spring is the mountaineering season when foreign climbers come to Nepal to attempt scale the highest peaks, while the fall is popular for trekkers who come to hike the mountain trails. The spring mountaineering season was canceled in March when the scale of the pandemic became clear and was followed by the country mostly closing its borders to outsiders.
Nepal has reported 176,500 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began and 984 deaths. The nation of 30 million people is running short on hospital beds and the government has asked patients with less than life threatening symptoms to stay at home in isolation.
Earlier in the fall season, a team of mountaineers from Bahrain was given special permission to scale Mount Lobuche and Mount Manaslu. They were made to follow all the new rules placed by the government and reported no problems.
The success of the expedition was celebrated by the mountaineering community in Nepal, as was the government decision to reopen to all qualified mountaineers and trekkers in October.
“We need to give small ray of hope to the people in the adventure tourism industry that there is still a future somewhere to look forward to,” Tamang said.
The pandemic hit as Nepal was preparing to double the number of tourist arrivals with a government campaign declaring 2020 as Visit Nepal year.
People in the mountains have been the hardest hit. They normally work these spring and fall seasons to make enough money to last them all year.
The prospect of trekkers and mountaineers returning to the mountain has been a welcome piece of news for those in the industry.
“We in the adventure tourism industry are very excited that the country is finally open, and we are beginning to get many calls and inquiries from foreign clients,” said Ang Tshering of the Asian Trekking in Kathmandu.
He said there is particular interest in the spring 2021 climbing season, especially for Mount Everest.
Still, with the virus still surging in many parts of the world, it will take time to for things to return to normal.
On a recent day in the tourist hub of Thamel in Kathmandu, most of the shops, restaurants, pubs and hotels remained closed. The shops normally selling down jackets, tents, hiking boots and survival equipment were mostly closed and those that were open had few if any customers.
“We have not seen any customer since March in my shop,” said Bir Lama, who sells hiking and mountaineering gear. “While I am paying rent, draining my savings, I am keeping the shop open only to keep myself from going insane.”
Read Also: Nepali gov't to resume domestic flights
In India's boiling summers, temperatures can easily rise to 50C (122F).
Nearly all vaccines need to be transported and distributed between 2C and 8C in what comprises the so-called cold chain. And most of the Covid-19 vaccines under development, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), will need to be refrigerated at temperatures well below 0C, the freezing point of water.
Imagine a Covid-19 vaccine that is heat tolerant and can be transported to remote towns and villages for tens of millions of jabs without depending on the cold chain.
A group of Indian scientists are working on such a vaccine. The "warm" or a heat-stable vaccine, they claim, can be stored at 100C for 90 minutes, at 70C for about 16 hours, and at 37C for more than a month and more, reports BBC.
Raghavan Varadarajan, a biophysicist and professor at the Indian Institute of Science, and his team have tested this vaccine on animals. "We got good results," Prof Varadarajan told me. Now they are waiting for funding to begin safety and toxicity tests on humans. Their paper has been accepted for publication in Journal of Biological Chemistry, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
"I am hopeful that after this study, newer avenues would open up with regards to having cold-chain independent vaccines," said Dr Renu Swarup, secretary of India's Department of Biotechnology.
Vaccines that can withstand high temperatures are rare.
Only three - offering protection against meningitis, human papillomavirus (HPV) and cholera - are licensed and approved by WHO for use at temperatures up to 40C. These vaccines can be deployed quickly in hard- to-reach communities, and reduce pressures on healthcare workers. They have proved to be useful during large-scale emergency responses like distributing oral cholera vaccine in Mozambique last year following Cyclone Idai, according to WHO.
"The possibility to transport vaccines outside the cold chain for the very last mile to reach the most remote populations in resource-limited settings is very helpful. It can be particularly helpful for mass vaccination campaigns when hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses need to be transported to several vaccination points within a short period of time," said Julien Potet, policy adviser (vaccines) of Médecins Sans Frontières' Access Campaign.
India expects to receive and utilise 400-500 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines and plans to inoculate some 250 million people between January and July next year. They will be mainly distributed through the country's 42-year-old immunisation programme, one of the world's largest health programmes. It targets 55 million people, mainly newborns and pregnant women, with 390 million free doses of vaccines against a dozen diseases every year.
To service this massive programme, India already has a robust network of state-owned cold storages for vaccines that can provide doses to more than eight million locations.
Storing and keeping vaccines cool requires walk in freezers, ice-lined refrigerators, refrigerated trucks, coolant packs such as dry ice and cold boxes, which help in last-mile delivery. Nearly four million doctors and nurses are involved in the immunisation campaign.
"India has largely managed vaccines and immunisation drives well," says B Thiagarajan, managing director of Blue Star, which has a major share of pharmaceutical cold chain products. "When it comes to vaccines which have to be stored at temperatures between 2 to 8C, we are well equipped. If the vaccine has to be kept at -40C, there will be a problem."
The WHO says Covid-19 vaccines under development can be categorised in three storage temperature requirements: 2-8C, -20C and -70C. A number of candidates, say experts, will require an "ultra cold chain" at temperatures which will "definitely prove a challenge to many countries."
Ensuring a consistent cold chain for a mass immunisation programme will be a big challenge.
At nearly 40 million tonnes, India's cold storage capacity is one of the world's largest, but it mainly stores fresh food, healthcare products, flowers and chemicals. Much of the capacity is not internationally hygiene compliant for storing vaccines. Vaccines can easily lose potency when exposed to higher temperatures, and have to be protected against accidental freezing during transport, as well as breaks in the cold chain due to exposure to high heat.
Even if the vaccine could be stored at 2C to 8C, the storage capacity in most cold chains has been designed to enable immunisation of mainly infants. This capacity, according to WHO, "risks being vastly insufficient as we try to rapidly vaccinate the entire population for Covid-19".
"There are significant challenges and they can be overcome," says Andrea Taylor of the US-based Duke Global Health Institute. "But without knowing if they will have access to vaccines or the number of doses or type of cold storage needed for vaccines they may get, it is difficult for countries to move aggressively to prepare".
That is where a "warm vaccine" could truly be a game changer.
India has recorded 50,210 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours on Thursday, bringing the total cases to 8,364,086.
With 704 deaths since Wednesday morning, the total death toll in the country due to the pandemic reached 124,315,, reports Xinhua.
This is after 12 days when over 50,000 COVID-19 cases have been detected in the country.
Still there are 527,962 active COVID-19 cases in the country, while 7,711,809 people have been successfully cured and discharged from hospitals so far.
Till Wednesday a total of 114,208,384 COVID-19 tests were conducted in the country, out of which 1,209,425 tests were conducted on Wednesday alone, revealed the data from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Thursday.
The capital city Delhi has been witnessing a spurt in COVID-19 cases over the past few days. This is being termed as the third COVID-19 wave for Delhi. The total count of cases in the capital had crossed the 400,000-mark on Tuesday.
Also read: Global Covid-19 cases near 48 million
Indian Army chief General MM Naravane is on a three-day tour of Nepal, a visit aimed at reviving the strained ties between the neighbouring nations.
General Naravane's visit to the Himalayan nation comes in the wake of an official invitation from Nepalese Army chief General Purna Chandra Thapa. The top Indian general is accompanied by his wife Veena Naravane, also the chairperson of the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA).
“The Nepali Army believes that exchange of such high-level visits and continuation of tradition helps in strengthening relations between the two armies, contributing to enhancing the relationship between the two countries," the Nepalese Army said in a statement soon after the arrival of General Naravane at the Tribhuvan International Airport on Wednesday.
General Naravane on Tuesday said that he was eagerly looking forward to the visit, which he felt would go a long way in strengthening the "bonds of friendship" between the armies of both the neighbouring nations.
The Indian Army chief is slated to hold talks with his Nepalese counterpart Purna Chandra Thapa at the Nepal Army headquarters on Thursday. The same day, he will be conferred with the honorary rank of General of Nepal Army by President Bidya Devi Bhandari at a special ceremony. General Naravane will call upon Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on Friday.
Cracks developed in the ties between India and Nepal after Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting Nepal's Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand on May 8.
What worsened the ties was the Nepalese Parliament formally approving a revised map of the country a month later, showing three areas -- Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura -- it disputes with India. The strategic Lipulekh pass connects Uttarakhand with the Tibet region of China. India and Nepal share an open border of about 1,880 km.
The new map was approved by Nepal as an apparent act of retaliation against New Delhi publishing its new map of the border region in November, after the latter divided Indian-administered Kashmir into the federal territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and incorporated some areas disputed with Kathmandu.
New Delhi's move also stirred simmering tensions between India and China. In June, border clashes broke out between India and China, which had left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.
Voters marked the end of an election like no other at the polls on Tuesday, casting the last of what will likely be a record number of ballots despite a global pandemic that has upended long-established election procedures and triggered hundreds of lawsuits.
Election officials warned that millions of absentee ballots could slow the vote count, perhaps for days, in some key battleground states. President Donald Trump threatened legal action to prevent ballots from being counted after Election Day.
Problems occur every election, and Tuesday was no different. There were long lines early in the day and sporadic reports of polling places opening late, along with equipment issues in counties in Georgia and Ohio. This was all expected given past experience, the decentralized nature of voting in the U.S. and last-minute changes due to the pandemic.
At least 98.8 million people had already voted before Election Day, about 71 percent of the nearly 139 million ballots cast during the 2016 presidential election, according to data collected by The Associated Press. Given that a few states, including Texas, had already exceeded their total 2016 vote count, experts were predicting record turnout this year.
“Come hell or high water,” said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It feels like that has been the attitude voters have needed to make sure their voices are heard this year.”
Those yet to vote headed to polling places despite another spike in COVID-19 cases that has hit much of the country. Among them were voters who may have wanted to vote by mail but waited too long to request a ballot or those who didn’t receive their ballots in time.
Kaal Ferguson, 26, planned to vote by mail but was concerned he hadn’t left enough time to send his ballot back. So he voted in person in Atlanta, despite worries that he could be exposed to COVID-19 by fellow voters.
“Obviously everybody has their right to vote,” he said. “But it’s kind of scary knowing that there’s not a place just for them to vote if they’d had it, so you could easily be exposed.”
Others were likely persuaded by the president’s rhetoric attacking mail voting or simply preferred to vote in person.
“I don’t want to see no mailman. I like to stand here, see my own people, wait in the line and do my civil duty,” said James “Sekou” Jenkins, a 68 year-old retired carpenter and mechanic who waited about 15 minutes before polls opened in West Philadelphia and voted for Democrat Joe Biden about an hour later.
With Democrats dominating the early vote, Republicans were expected to comprise a large share of Tuesday’s voting.
Federal authorities were monitoring voting and any threats to the election across the country at an operations center just outside Washington D.C. Officials there said there were no major problems detected early Tuesday.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Christopher Krebs, the director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. “Today, in some sense, is half-time. There may be other events or activities or efforts to interfere and undermine confidence in the election. So I’d ask all Americans to be patient, to treat all sensational and unverified claims with skepticism, and remember technology sometimes fails and breaks.”
Kathleen Thomas, 61, had to vote by paper ballot because of an issue with voting machines at her polling place in Atlanta. She was pleasantly surprised the process took less than an hour but would rather have used a machine.
“If I had a choice I would prefer to cast a ballot into the machine myself,” she said. “But I guess I have no choice. I can’t go to another precinct. I can’t take that chance. I have to vote.”
In the months leading up to Election Day, election officials had to deal with a pandemic that has infected more than 9 million Americans and killed more than 230,000, forcing them to make systemic changes largely on the fly and mostly without federal money. Meanwhile, Trump repeatedly sought to undermine the election with unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.
He has particularly targeted the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania, after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed — at least for now — a three-day extension for receiving and counting absentee ballots. Over the weekend, Trump said that as soon as the polls close there on Tuesday, “We’re going in with our lawyers.”
Misinformation about election procedures, concerns about confrontations at the polls and reports of mail slowdowns also clouded the run-up to Election Day.
The National Association of Secretaries of State worked with the National Association of State Election Directors to help states hammer out plans for protecting against foreign and domestic cyberattacks, countering misinformation and strengthening an election infrastructure tested by massive early voting and pandemic precautions.
Election officials across some 10,000 voting jurisdictions scrambled to purchase personal-protective equipment, find larger polling places, replace veteran poll workers who opted to sit out this year’s election due to health concerns and add temporary workers to deal with the avalanche of mail ballots.