When the first person passed away from COVID-19 in Nepal, a young mother who died in a hospital last month, her days-old baby was moved to an isolation ward.
But the woman’s body remained. Ambulance drivers and hospital workers, fearful of the contagion, refused to move her body from the hospital morgue to the crematorium, where it could be burned in line with the Hindu tradition.
Shortly after, authorities called upon RNA-16 — three men and a woman in signature blue vests, renowned for their selfless volunteer work in Bhaktapur, a UNESCO world heritage site known as the “city of temples” located in the east part of the capital Kathmandu.
RNA-16 stands for “Rescue and Awareness”. They deal with many types of disasters that devastate the country, from destructive Nepal’s 2015 earthquake to daily road accidents. But their unique service lays in the epidemic amount to much greater sacrifice, said doctors, hospital officials and civic leaders.
“They are truly our heroes and doing work that no one is willing to do. When even health workers are frightened to carry out some potential at-risk-of-contagion tasks, they have dared to help people amid this deadly pandemic,” said Kiran Thapa, a city council member.
They have received some little financial support from businesses and have been lauded by doctors and civic leaders for aiding a health ill-equipped care system for the pandemic outbreak.
Since Nepal reported its first cases, the team has been camping in a tent pitched on the roof of a hospital pharmacy in Bhaktapur.
“As soon as the lockdown was declared by the government, we decided to camp here and help out because we were expecting a big flow of people coming in for tests,” the team leader Arun Sainju explained to the media from their leaky tent.
Sainju, 31, is a safety instructor at a local school. He formed the team in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. Sick with a high fever, he left his hospital bed to help the overwhelmed staff.
“I was separating the dead bodies from the wounded ones and categorizing them for the doctors,” Sainju said. “This is when my life turned, and I decided to help my fellow citizens.”
Nhuja Kaiju, 20, is a computer operator at a government office, and Rajesh Gaiju, 28, is a history and culture teacher. Only Punam Karmacharya, a 22-year-old nurse, has any formal medical training.
As the virus raged in neighbouring China earlier this year, the team trained with the Nepalese army to better prepare for the pandemic, including how to handle viral samples and infected corpses.
And when most of the city’s first responders refused to transport suspected infected Coronavirus patients, RNA-16 converted a borrowed truck into a makeshift ambulance and started fielding calls from around Bhaktapur and surrounding villages to pick people up for virus tests.
Apart from the tent they sleep in, they set up two other tents within the hospital grounds where they and hospital nurses collect virus test samples. Up to 80 people come to the hospital for tests every day. The volunteers help them to line up, collect information and take their samples.
Last month, they were deployed after the young mother’s death.
“When we reached the morgue, there was blood spattered all over the floor and the body was also not properly wrapped. We had to repack the body in a body bag, lift it in the vehicle and drive it to the Pashupati temple for cremation,” Sainju admitted.
Even at the crematorium, the staff would not go near the body, so the team loaded it into the furnace while the family stood at a distance. RNA-16, said Sainju, had become “the funeral procession for the lady.”
Afterwards, they quarantined themselves for 11 days, during which Sainju felt in constant anxiety, but not because he was afraid he could have been infected: his concern was that, in their absence, people in need of help were suffering.