/ 29 April 2015

Nepal: Buried alive by poverty

Houses were reduced to rubble in Kathmandu following the 7.9-magnitude earthquake.
Houses were reduced to rubble in Kathmandu following the 7.9-magnitude earthquake.

After more than 36 hours of darkness, Garima Saha (12) woke up on Monday morning in a makeshift orthopaedic surgery ward in the reception hall of a hospital in central Kathmandu.

When she opened her eyes, finally regaining consciousness after having been buried for nine hours in rubble after Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal, she found she was safe, but in great pain with multiple fractures to her shoulder. She also learned that her mother and elder brother were dead.

An hour or so later, held by her sobbing grandmother who had rushed from a distant village to be with her, she was gently raised to a semi-upright position in the bed where she had been placed after undergoing lengthy surgery on Saturday night.

Garima looked out with stunned eyes on a scene that many in earthquake-prone Kathmandu suspected they might one day see, but fervently hoped they never would. Lit by flickering fluorescent lights, she saw a dozen exhausted doctors, many of whom had been on their feet for days; a score or so of white-coated nurses, their faces blank with fatigue; and a Western tourist who had volunteered that morning and was clumsily rolling bandages.

And she saw rows of other patients on old beds, stretchers or just the floor. Opposite was Chirim Baby Sahi, a 55-year-old newspaper seller and the sole breadwinner in his family of five, who had been trapped by masonry falling from a temple and is now paralysed.

Spinal injuries
To one side was Anusha Khatry, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from the hard-hit Sindhulpalchok district. Propped up against her bed were the x-rays that, Professor Gopal Raman Shama said, show she has spinal injuries that mean she is unlikely to walk again.

“She does not know yet,” whispered her mother.

What all these casualties share, like the mounting numbers of dead and injured, is that they are poor. Though many had predicted that an earthquake in Kathmandu would bring the newly constructed cement apartment blocks tumbling down, it was mainly the older, brick and wood homes that were reduced to rubble. Anyone who stayed in these could not afford better.

“Outside Kathmandu it’s the rural poor. But in the city it’s the people in the older, precarious housing. It’s obvious: the wealthier you are, the stronger the house you have,” said Bhaskar Gautam, a local sociologist.

Often four or five storeys high and subdivided into cheap family apartments, the homes of people such as Garima have long been regarded as a risk.

Garima’s other brother, a waiter in a noodle shop, said the family’s home was their “bad luck”. “We should have moved 20 years ago,” he said.

Angry and desperate
The wife of Sahi, the paralysed newspaper seller, was angry and desperate. To add to her misery, the family’s home had also collapsed and now they, like hundreds of thousands of others across Nepal, are homeless.

“If we had had money we would have built a strong house. But we had none. There is no place to go. There is no one to look after us. Life was hard for us already. I don’t want to be alive,” she said.

Parts of Kathmandu are coming back to life. Hawkers sell limes and cabbages on the pavements. One or two shops are open, even a bank. The city’s notorious traffic is still far from its usual level but is returning to chaotic, congested normality.

Yet thousands are still camping on open spaces, frightened to return to their homes. Some say they will wait until 72 hours have passed, but aftershocks continue. Many, too, are still seeking treatment for bad injuries, some waiting outside hospitals. The morgue at Bir Hospital, the city’s biggest, is overflowing, with bodies lined up outside.

There is also the fear of disease. “Now there could be communicable illnesses – diarrhoea, flu and so forth. The earthquake will have broken all the sewers and pipes so the water supply will be contaminated,” said Dr Sameer Thapa, as he looked out over a parking lot and garden covered in tents sheltering patients at a university teaching hospital.

Humanitarian aid
Aid is beginning to arrive. Western humanitarian organisations are taking the hotel rooms of departing tour groups. On Monday flights were being turned back from Kathmandu’s airport, the only international strip in the country, because there was no space for them to land, let alone unload.

Lila Mani Poudyal, the government’s chief secretary and the rescue effort co-ordinator, said recovery was also being slowed because many key workers – such as water tanker drivers, electricity company employees and labourers needed to clear debris from the streets – had gone home to be with their families.

As the injured continued to arrive at hospitals, “we especially need orthopaedic [doctors], nerve specialists, anaesthetists, surgeons and paramedics”, Poudyal told reporters.

If in Kathmandu life is slowly returning to normal, out in the rural areas the situation is very different. In Dhulikhel, the main hospital – one of only two serving the district with its population of 380 000 – was fast running out of diesel for its generator. “We are trying to get more, but it’s difficult. We’ve a little bit of solar, but not enough to light the operating theatres and the wards,” said Dr Deepak Shrestha.

With so many fractures and spinal injuries, there is an acute shortage of wheelchairs, crutches and even stretchers. In Dhulikhel, too, patients are being treated outside under makeshift shelters of plastic sheeting. Under one, labelled “simple injuries”, an elderly man wept in pain as a wound to his leg was dressed, the white of the bone clearly visible.

The situation in Gorkha district, the epicentre of the quake, is still unclear. The death toll is expected to rise, said local officials. But vast numbers of homes have been destroyed, leaving tens of thousands exposed to chilly late-spring Himalayan temperatures and frequent rain. – © Guardian News & Media 2015