The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to sharp relief many infrastructure-related hurdles in Nepal, one of them being access to transport. Moving infected patients who are in the same enclosed space as them is a challenge for frontline workers even during land transport. For helicopter pilots doing so in the air, even as they navigate Nepal’s difficult terrains, it’s doubly challenging.
As with most frontline workers, the pilots usually wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Most pilots ApEx spoke to said their helicopters are completely sealed in order to contain the virus--further adding to the risk of contagion within.
When patients need to be airlifted from the Tarai region, where the temperature rises up to 40 degrees in summer, the pilots in PPEs are drenched in their own sweat. They can’t even drink water as they need to be in masks, face shields and gloves at all times.
Sherpa is one of those pilots still carrying out rescue missions that aren’t just Covid-related. The pilot, who started out in 1995, works 10 hours a day, six days a week even during the lockdown. He’s on call for rescue missions, usually to the mountains. As it’s difficult to get PCR tests in remote areas, he doesn’t always know if the people he’s rescuing are infected or not. However, he still wears double masks and a face shield to be safe.
Just recently, Sherpa rescued a team of mountaineers from Everest Base Camp. Following that, he led another rescue mission to Dhaulagiri Base Camp. In addition to leading rescue missions, on average, he airlifts around three patients from different areas of the country and brings them to their designated hospitals.
While flying with a double mask and a face shield is uncomfortable, Sherpa confesses that the biggest issue during rescue missions is still the bureaucratic red tape. “During missions, we cannot fly until we get full details from ward offices or until we receive approval from the authorities. This takes a long time,” the captain says. “This isn’t feasible during emergency situations where the patients are already on the brink of death.”
Captain Thapa has been on countless rescue missions since he started flying in 2010. He’s witnessed health emergencies and travel accidents throughout his career. Since his first Covid-related airlifting on October 12, 2020, pilot Hari Ram Thapa has transported over fifty Covid-infected patients from all over Nepal.
With ten hours of office time in which seven hours is allocated for flights, Thapa airlifts anywhere from one to three patients a day. Since he works in a department that has been exclusively assigned to look after Covid emergencies, he’s moving all over the country, according to demand. When ApEx spoke to Thapa, he was in Pokhara after just transferring patients from a remote area to a hospital there.
Pun’s department airline began rescue operations in late October. Since the captain started at a time when infection rates were still containable, he used to get one patient per day. However, as the pandemic raged, he now ferries two-three patients a day on average.
Before the pandemic, Pun used to fly patients from remote areas to well-equipped hospitals inside Kathmandu. When the hospitals in the valley stopped taking new patients due to shortages in ventilator, oxygen, and bed shortage, much of his flights had to stop. Even when it was resumed, he had to take patients from Kathmandu outside the valley for treatment. He recalls incidents when he took sick individuals from the capital to Biratnagar.
As the situation improved, he’s been bringing in patients from Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj, and Pokhara. Pun, who has been flying for the last 22 years, also finds the heat very challenging. “We are double-masked and double-gloved inside PPE, and it gets very sweaty,” the captain tells ApEx.
Captain Ananda Thapa’s airlifting missions are mostly focused in the Western Terai of Nepal, including areas such as Biratnagar, Siraha, Janakpur, Birgunj, Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj, and Chitwan. Among the hilly areas, he’s received emergency calls from Rukum and Surkhet.
Normally, the captain works anywhere from 7-10 hours. However, because many of his missions need him to fly to areas with high temperatures, he has limited his flight time to five hours as a precaution.
“It’s extremely daunting for us to push our physical limits and fly in hot temperatures whilst wearing PPE,” he says. “Most of us are drenched in our own sweat when we land back in Kathmandu.” Thapa is flying three-four patients a day on average.
In his 14 years of career, this is also the first time he’s been forced to isolate himself from his family due to his job. The captain usually stays alone in his own room. An ex-army man, Thapa is used to risky situations, but the pandemic has brought the danger to his family as well, but he’s determined to fight it any way he can.