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UMN staff preparing to conduct Covid-19 tests
UMN staff preparing to conduct Covid-19 tests

The Coronavirus Diaries: Exhausting and Often Heartbreaking

Wednesday May 19 2021

Joel Hafvenstein, executive director of the United Mission to Nepal, reflects on the loss of a friend as the country battles with a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to the news that one of the pioneers and pillars of the Nepali church had died of COVID-19.

Pastor Robert Karthak was raised in a Nepali-speaking Christian community in north India with historic ties to Church of Scotland.  In his twenties he was caught up in a local revival movement, and in 1956 found himself called to leave his home and go serve in the newly opened country of Nepal.  He became an extraordinary pastor, heading one of Nepal’s largest church movements for decades, through some of the country’s hardest times.  Pastor Robert was a man of extraordinary grace, courage, and warmth, who taught the gospel with nearly unrivalled clarity and passion.  He had been a friend to us at United Mission to Nepal (UMN) for 65 years.

Today he’s gone; and the many who mourn him can’t meet in person to share the loss.  When one of his fellow pioneers from 1956 died a few years ago, there was a packed funeral service.  We all sang the great Nepali hymn, “Sara Shristi ko Malik,” with its reminder that this earth will pass away but God’s promise will not; that this life will end, but the one who believes will never die.  Pastor Robert preached powerfully at that funeral.  To not be able to say a similar goodbye to him now adds to the grief of his absence.

But Kathmandu has been strictly locked down since late April, in response to a wave of COVID-19 cases so steep as to be nearly vertical.  New variants first seen in India have swept through Nepal, spreading with shocking speed and striking down the young as well as the elderly.  The hospitals are suddenly full of patients who need oxygen in high volumes, for days, if they are going to have any chance of survival.

South Asia was spared the worst of the pandemic in 2020, with casualty rates far below those in Europe or America.  Now that’s changed, and as we saw in neighbouring India, the Nepali health system is buckling under the onslaught.  Hospital beds are desperately scarce in the Kathmandu Valley and other hotspots; many rural district hospitals simply don’t have the capacity to produce oxygen, let alone in the high quantities needed, and even many urban hospitals find themselves regularly operating just an hour or less away from completely running out of oxygen.  Every day we see new appeals from friends on social media looking desperately for an available hospital bed or oxygen cylinder for some family member.

At UMN we are doing our part to respond to this crisis.  Building on experience from 2020, both of our mission hospitals have rapidly expanded their COVID wards and are running their oxygen plants full time to treat as many patients as we can.  In our field offices that do village-level work against poverty, we are also trying to help by providing vital equipment to local clinics and hospitals.

It is exhausting and often heartbreaking work, as colleagues fall ill around us (by God’s mercy, so far all of our UMN teammates seem to be on the road to recovery) and we witness so many deaths, including among friends and family.  But as I remember Pastor Robert, I keep in mind that Nepali hymn “Sara Shristi ko Malik,” and its reminder both of the brokenness and transience of the present world and the beauty of the coming new creation.  In the valley of the shadow of death still we stand and sing: alleluia, alleluia.

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The Coronavirus Diaries: reflections from Church of Scotland partners around the world

Malawi: God Has Been Faithful to Us
France: Thankful For What I Have
India: Love Your Neighbours
A Nigerian in Scotland: Alone But Not Lonely
Taiwan: When We Work Together, We Achieve the Best Results
Hungary: We Mourn Each Loss
Zambia: Preparing for the Vaccine, and a Third Wave
World Communion of Reformed Churches: The 'Covid and Beyond' Church
Pakistan: Passing the Light
Lebanon: The Lord Will Not Forsake Us
South Korea: 'It is Time For Christians to Hear the Marginalised'
Cuba: Keep Moving On
Canada: Cracks Have Been Exposed
Kenya: Leave No Child Behind
USA: Homes of Prayer
Mozambique: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
A Spaniard in Scotland: The Power of Movement
South Sudan: Being Positive
A Nigerian in Scotland: God is in Charge
Trinidad and Tobago: New Frontiers
Czech Republic: A Challenge for Everybody
Switzerland: An Outpouring of Solidarity and Creativity
The West Bank: A Landscape of Broken Dreams
Nepal: So Many Premature Goodbyes
Malawi: We Must Hold Each Other Close
Nigeria: A Fresh Spiritual Connectedness
Egypt: 'This Is A Time To Witness God'
Guyana: The Strength of our Connectedness
South Korea: A Harsh Reality
Zimbabwe: Convenience or a Wake-up Call?
Sri Lanka: Service is the Highest Form of Worship
USA: Testing Positive
Portugal: The Mission of the Church Has Not Changed
World Council of Churches: A New Dawn is Upon us
Hungary: Physically Distant but Close in Spirit
A German in Scotland: Something New Has Already Begun
Myanmar: We Will Overcome this Hardship
Ghana: This Too Shall Pass
Brazil: The Least We Can Do
Kenya: Caring for One Another in Christ
An Indian in Germany: A Time of Enrichment
Argentina: Time in Between
Malawi: 'My identity in Christ remains unchanged'
Jerusalem: Being Rather than Doing
Malawi: No Lockdown and an Election
Zambia: 'I will never leave you... or forsake you'
Czech Republic: The Covid Cover-up
Zambia: 'All Life is Sacred'
Israel/Palestine: 'The Air is Clear'
Nepal: 'Please Pray for Us'
Malawi: Tough Dilemmas
Italy: 'Together, We Will Get Through It'