When the pandemic hits the highest peak
A coronavirus outbreak on Mount Everest has infected at least 100 climbers and support staff, according to a report by Associated Press on Sunday. Lukas Furtenbach, an expedition organiser, said there were at least “100 people minimum positive for Covid in base camp, and then the numbers might be something like 150 or 200.” Other climbers have talked about the presence of only rapid antigen testing facilities at the base camp and the lack of adherence to protocols such as social distancing. While international climbers are required to take the RT-PCR test on arrival in Kathmandu, this isn’t uniformly followed. And there is no protocol for testing Nepali support staff. This means that Covid-19-positive climbers and staff may be mingling with others throughout the trek. The climbing season ends on May 29.
Mountain tourism is an important part of Nepal’s economy, and Everest climbers alone contribute more than $300 million to the country. Last year, Nepal was forced to cancel all climbing expeditions, including those to Everest, due to Covid-19, leading to a strain on the economy and livelihood loss for the support staff. To offset these losses, Nepal issued a record 408 permits for Everest this season; an additional 125 permits have been issued for Lhotse, which uses the same base camp.
While one can appreciate Nepal’s economic and domestic compulsions, opening up Everest this season — and keeping it open — is not just risky for mountaineers, but also other citizens. Nepal is already facing an unprecedented surge of cases, severely straining a weak health care system. It is time to climb down from the peak.