400 oxygen cylinders, 10 ventilators arriving from China today; Everest climbers asked to bring back empty oxygen canisters

As the country grapples to meet surging demand for medical oxygen cylinders to be provided to COVID-infected patients, a Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) aircraft is off to Beijing to fetch essential medical supplies.

According to NAC, its wide-body aircraft will fetch 400 units of oxygen cylinders and 10 ventilators being provided as grant assistance by the Chinese government to Nepal.

The plane took off for Beijing at 11:30 pm yesterday and is schedule to arrive at Tribhuwan International Airport at 2:35 pm today.

NAC spokesperson Karishma Shrestha informed that NAC was sending the aircraft to pick up medical supplies at the request of the Ministry of Health and Population and in coordination with the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.

“Although it is stated that 20 ventilators will be brought from Beijing in this flight, we have been informed that the cargo includes only 10 units of ventilator and 400 oxygen cylinders,” she said.

Nepal is so short of oxygen canisters that it has asked climbers on Mount Everest to bring back their empties instead of abandoning them on mountain slopes, an official said on Monday, as it struggles with a second wave of the coronavirus.

The country issued climbing permits to more than 700 climbers for 16 Himalayan peaks – 408 to Mount Everest – for the April-May climbing season in a bid to get the mountaineering industry and tourism back up and running.

The Nepal Mountaineering Association has asked the climbers to help Nepal deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases that has brought the country’s fragile healthcare system to breaking point, as it has in neighbouring India where deaths held close to record highs on Monday.

Kul Bahadur Gurung, a senior official with the NMA, said climbers and their Sherpa guides were estimated to have carried at least 3,500 oxygen bottles this season.

These bottles often get buried in avalanches or are abandoned on the mountain slopes at the end of the expedition.

“We appeal to climbers and Sherpas to bring back their empty bottles wherever possible as they can be refilled and used for the treatment of the coronavirus patients who are in dire needs,” said Gurung.

Many private and community hospitals in Kathmandu have said they are unable to take any more patients due to lack of oxygen. There was a shortage of both the gas and canisters.

“We need about 25,000 oxygen cylinders immediately to save people from dying. This is our urgent need,” Samir Kumar Adhikari, a health ministry official said.

“We also need oxygen plants, compressors and ICU beds urgently,” Adhikari said.

China has pledged to provide 20,000 oxygen cylinders, 20 ventilators and other medical supplies, Health and Population Minister Hridayesh Tripathi said, the first installment of which is arriving today.

Nepal has only 1,600 intensive care beds and fewer than 600 ventilators for its population of 30 million with just 0.7 doctors per 100,000 people, according to ActionAid Nepal.

Prakash Thapa, a doctor at the Bheri hospital in Nepalgunj, said patients were sleeping on the floor and corridors.

“We are somehow managing so far but it will be difficult to take any more patients,” he said.