An ambulance driver in Nepal who plays the role of "a demon" during a popular medieval festival has become an inspiration as the Himalayan nation finds itself in the midst of an ambulance crisis due to the fear and stigma attached to Covid-19.
Aalm Khan, a human rights activist, says that the second person to die due to Covid-19 in Nepal had waited 12 hours in vain for an ambulance.
Nepali media have documented hundreds of such stories, about people not getting ambulances, patients with Covid-19 symptoms being denied treatment by hospitals, or dead bodies languishing for days because nobody would attend them out of fear and stigma attached to the coronavirus, or due to a lack of personal protective equipment.
However, Buddha Krishna Baga Shrestha, an employee at Nepal-Korea Friendship Municipality Hospital, never stopped his work despite pressure from his family, friends and neighbour to stay on leave.
"I [have] provided ambulance service to over 300 patients since the lockdown on March 24. There were times when I had to work 24 hours a day," Shrestha tells dpa.
Shrestha says that the endless news about the ambulance crisis in the country motivated him to work even harder.
His phone rings endlessly from early in the morning to late at night with calls from patients and front-line workers. One factor exacerbating the ambulance crisis is that there are only around 3,000 ambulances across Nepal, far too few to meet demand at times of crisis.
When Kamal Mishra's respiratory problem worsened in May, his family members spent several hours searching for an ambulance before finally coming across Shrestha.
Shrestha himself had to face stigma when he kept doing it despite reservation from relatives and neighbours who were afraid that he might contract the virus.
In Bhaktapur, one of the three historic cities in Kathmandu valley known for its medieval culture and heritage, Shrestha is no stranger.
During the Jibro Chedne Jatra, or the Tongue Piercing Festival, celebrated around every Nepali New Year in April, hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch him as he marches around the city with his tongue pierced with a 25cm-long iron needle.
One popular legend has it that the festival started shortly before the Bikram Sambat calendar some 2,077 years ago, when villagers, with the help of a renowned shaman, captured, tortured and expelled a Khyah, or a demon, that was troubling villagers by destroying their food and killing their livestock.
The villagers started the festival in memory of that event to ward off evil forces and bring good fortune, according to Om Dhaubdel, a cultural expert.
Last year, Shrestha, 49, had to pierce his tongue despite his poor health because nobody would come forward to volunteer for a risky ritual that requires three days of fasting with many restrictions.
"I will do it until there is a successor," says Shrestha.
This year's festival was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shrestha has no regrets. He thinks that the government did the right thing by cancelling the festival, as it would have caused mass transmission of Covid-19.
"Festivals can wait, but the pandemic won't wait. It's time to save lives," says Shrestha.
Did you find this article insightful?
100% readers found this article insightful