At the start of his Luce Year, Ben Weissenbach studied Nepalese and explored affiliations with Kathmandu-based institutions. But, like many of his fellow Scholars in the 2020–21 cohort, he ended up spending more than six months in Seoul, South Korea due to the closure of Nepalese borders. He arrived in Nepal in April 2021 and immediately set out to explore and report on the devastating effects of the pandemic on local communities. He has already published two articles about the current crises facing the nation.
Local residents in the Everest Region, whose economy has shifted over the past three decades from farming and herding to one based on tourism, now find themselves deep in debt due to the lack of visitors and are uncertain about whether relief will come.
Meanwhile, Nepal’s healthcare system has become overloaded with COVID patients, with 50% of test results returning positive for infection and deaths per capita now surpassing those of India. New strains of the virus appear to be “significantly more contagious and deadly than those of the last wave,” and the government now looks to foreign aid as its only hope.
On Sept. 1, 2019, four months before researchers in China identified a novel coronavirus, KC Krishna opened his first business in the heart of Namche Bazaar, the tourism hub of Nepal’s Mt. Everest region.
Krishna had moved to the boomtown for work 12 years prior. He spent more than a decade managing another lodge before opening his own, Thawa Lodge & Bakery Cafe, along with Sherpa Bar & Steak House on the floor below. Finally, he seemed poised to capitalize on the postmillennial rush of tourists to the highest mountain on Earth — a boom there seemed no reason to doubt would continue.
“If the business goes well,” Krishna remembers thinking, “my future, my kids’ future, my wife’s future — everything will be better.”
Less than two years later, Krishna — like so many other new business owners in the region — finds himself buried in debt mounting as high as the nearby peaks. With virtually zero income and no relief in sight, he does not know if his business can survive a third consecutive tourism season spoiled by COVID-19.
Just before midnight on Sunday, Anup Bastola—chief consultant for Nepal’s Ministry of Health and Population, lead doctor at Sukraraj Hospital in Kathmandu, and the man who identified Nepal’s first-ever COVID-19 patient a year ago—felt, for the first time in his career, completely helpless.
Sukraraj transformed Sunday from an overloaded hospital into a nightmare of triage. Bastola arrived home from duty only to learn that six more patients were failing—six more for whom he could not find ventilators or ICU beds.
“These patients, they are fighting for their lives,” said Bastola over the phone. One of them was trying to breathe 56 times per minute, like a marathoner approaching the finish. “They will fight for one or two days. But they need ventilators. And tomorrow, the number who need ventilators will increase.”