Every morning I sit at the breakfast table with my mother. She moved to New York about five years ago and having had her so close to me makes New York feel even more like home. Our morning meal, whipped up by my mom, is served up alongside a cup of Nepali chiya—a traditional black tea with milk, boiled with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
As we sit across the table sipping chiya from our hand-carved Nepali copper teacups, we catch up on life and current events, and share lighthearted laughter. For years, it’s been an uplifting start to my day. Unfortunately, our recent breakfasts have been much more somber. Over the past few months, a torrent of anti-Asian hate crimes has swept the country, partly incited by the racist portrayal of the COVID-19 virus as the “China virus.” Instead of being afraid and falling back to the margins (as the perpetrators of these hate crimes would have wanted), this has instead caused many Asian Americans to unite with greater force than ever before. Finally, our community has been able to move from a constant state of invisibility into a bit of deserved spotlight.
Asian American communities all over the U.S. are finding solidarity in the fight for visibility in the media, pop culture, and everyday lives. On the other side of the globe, however, our families in east Asia are fighting a different type of battle. They’re not just fighting to be seen—they’re fighting to stay alive.
My home country, Nepal, has been struggling through one of the worst public health catastrophes it has ever faced. Nestled between India and China, Nepal’s worsening COVID-19 pandemic has been overshadowed by the crisis in its southern neighbor. A fraction of the size of India, and even weaker diplomatically, its suffering has not received the kind of media coverage and visibility that is urgently needed to garner equitable help from the rest of the world.
In May, COVID-19 infection rates in Nepal grew to almost 32 new cases a day per 100,000 people—one of the highest such rates in the world during that time frame. Nepal’s health care infrastructure is not suited to handle such pressure. The country is completely out of ICU beds, critical patients are being turned away, and oxygen tanks are being rationed. Experts estimate that within the coming weeks, ten patients will be vying for each ICU bed available. Nepal is in such dire need for oxygen tanks that the government has requested that mountaineers climbing Mount Everest bring back their oxygen cylinders. Unfortunately, these mountaineers, mostly white and Westerners, have received more global attention than ordinary Nepalis dying from lack of oxygen.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In spite of many structural barriers, Nepal has developed an exemplary vaccination track record. For example, Nepal doubled immunization coverage for most vaccines from 43% in 1990 to 90% by 2012. Among other things, Nepal has a well-trained contingent of 55,000-plus Female Community Health Volunteers who use community-engaged and culturally sensitive strategies to deliver vaccines and other critical health care to the most remote parts of the country. Knowledge about the importance of vaccines is very high in Nepal. The country has good cold-chain storage capacity and other infrastructure to implement the COVID-19 vaccines in a smooth and speedy manner. The only thing missing is the supply of vaccines.
Nepal has administered about 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccinations so far among its population of 30 million. Unfortunately, many individuals that received the first dose have been unable to get their second dose to finish the treatment. Therefore, only about 2% of the overall population is fully vaccinated. At the current rate, experts estimate it will take 481 days to get to 10%. That’s still very far away from the 60%-80% most experts believe is required for herd immunity.
When, on May 12, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations discussed the international response to COVID-19, Chris Murphy, a Democratic from Connecticut, raised the question “What else can we be doing to make sure that Nepal is not overwhelmed in the way that India is today?” Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director of the USAID’s COVID-19 task force, responded by explaining that the U.S. had already given Nepal over $20 million for medical equipment and testing. Since then, USAID has also sent the first of three planned shipments of medical supplies to Kathmandu. While medical supplies are necessary and extremely appreciated, they only slow down the rate of spread but don’t extinguish it. Instead, the ideal solution would be proactive instead of reactive: vaccines.
The U.S. is currently the largest donor to the COVAX program, from which Nepal has received 348,000 vaccines thus far. The Biden Administration announced on June 3 that the U.S. is looking to share at least 80 million surplus vaccine doses to countries around the world by the end of the month. On June 10, the administration made a further commitment to purchase 500 million Pfizer vaccines at the “not for profit” price and donate them to the world’s lowest-income countries by June of 2022, with 200 million delivered by the end of 2021. In the recent G7 meeting in Cornwall, other countries followed suit, raising the additional vaccine dose sharing commitment from G7 countries to 870 million.
This upswing in recent funding commitments from wealthy countries is good news indeed. It comes as a big relief for the hundreds of Nepali activists, and advocates around the world, who have been working tirelessly for vaccine equity. However, we need to further amplify our pressure to ensure that the funding and vaccine sharing from wealthy countries do not slow down or stop. To date, over 75% of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in just 10 of the richest countries. Such acute levels of vaccine inequity put the whole world at risk—even those countries with high vaccination rates. We know that the COVID-19 virus moves very fast and is more likely to mutate into fatal variants when more people in a population, especially vulnerable immunocompromised people, are infected. We need to move much, much faster than the virus. There is no time for sporadic, siloed, and nationalistic approaches.
In early June, the leaders of World Health Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization issued a joint statement calling wealthy countries to urgently scale up their vaccine donations and financial contributions to help meet the $50 billion investment needed to “end the pandemic and secure a global recovery” The statement also calls on the world to join forces to vaccinate 40% of the population.
As much as USAID has stated that the COVID-19 crisis in Nepal is its “highest priority,” we still need your help. The most effective way is through reaching out to both your state senators, as well as senators on the South Asia subcommittee. We need to keep the pressure on elected officials to keep their promises, to act fast and to keep doing more. I know from talking to my family and friends in Nepal that Nepalis are ready and eager to beat the pandemic. They just need the vaccines, testing kits, oxygen tanks, and other critical supplies.
In my daily calls with my sister, extended family, and friends living in Nepal, they have explained over and over again that the state of the country feels almost apocalyptic. Things are happening so quickly that it feels like family members here one day, and within the blink of an eye, they’re no longer with us. For so many Nepali citizens, seeing deaths in such masses has been so hard to wrap their heads around; after the catastrophic 2015 earthquake, no one in Nepal expected to have to deal with another devastating massive loss of lives within a mere decade.
I’m so very lucky to have my mother near me who makes New York my new home. However, our identity will always be deep-rooted in Nepal. The place, the people, and the culture are what have shaped me into who I am today, and to see so much of the country and so much of my family lost in this battle, has made me more heavy-hearted than ever. So, while people in Nepal are fighting so hard to stay alive and fight this virus, we must do our part and fight for their visibility—so that Nepali and Asian voices are not rendered invisible again.
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Contributor: Prabal Gurung