Local hero leads by example as Nepal fights Covid-19 stigma

  • People
  • Tuesday, 11 Aug 2020

Shrestha at the wheel of an ambulance with a face mask and protective suit. He has continued to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic, as Nepal faces a shortage of ambulance drivers due to Covid-19 fears. Photos: dpa

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.

Since the Covid-19 lockdown in March, Nepalis have struggled to get ambulances due to a shortage of drivers. Drivers' refusal to transport patients with fever and others with Covid-19 symptoms has even resulted in multiple deaths.

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.

"He wouldn't have died had the ambulance reached [him] on time," Khan tells dpa.

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.Shrestha holds an old photograph in his hand showing his tongue pierced with an iron needle during the Jibro Chedne Jatra, a tongue piercing festival. The 49-year-old is a local celebrity because he has played the demon at the festival for years. Shrestha holds an old photograph in his hand showing his tongue pierced with an iron needle during the Jibro Chedne Jatra, a tongue piercing festival. The 49-year-old is a local celebrity because he has played the demon at the festival for years.

"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.

"For the first time in my 18-year career, the coronavirus made me understand what a real crisis looks like. That's when I told myself 'I would rather die than just sit and watch people die due to lack of ambulances on the news.'"

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.

"We called more than five hospitals, but they wouldn't send an ambulance after hearing about the respiratory problem. He came right away," says Mishra, a resident of Sanothimi.

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.

"Some of my neighbours would call me corona carrier and run away from me," he says.

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.

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Nepal , ambulance driver , Covid-19 , stigma


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