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In Nepal's capital, sole crematorium for COVID victims becomes busier

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - As the number of coronavirus deaths climbs in Nepal, workers at the only crematorium in Kathmandu designated to handle the victims have been working past midnight, their meagre wages supplemented by less than 50 U.S. cents for each corpse.

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Elsewhere in a country that ranks among the world’s poorest, the bodies are burned on funeral pyres and their ashes are buried, but in the capital they are brought to the crematorium in the Pashupatinath Hindu temple complex.

“There is hardly any space for emotion,” Shyam Kharel, one of the workers there, told Reuters as he got ready to place a yellow bag containing a body in the incinerator.

“Initially there were not many, hardly five or six, and sometimes none at all for days,” Kharel said. “But now it goes up to 25 or 26 in a day.”

Despite being provided protective equipment, Kharel said five of his co-workers had been infected.

Keeping count of infections and deaths is a challenge in Nepal, a country of 30 million strung along the southern Himalayas, as testing is limited, rendering confirmed cases of COVID-19 potentially far below the actual number.

Latest government figures show Nepal’s total cases stood at 162,354, including 887 deaths. The official daily death toll has been running at around 15 a day since a peak of 26 seen on Oct. 21.

Nepal was quick to enter a lockdown when its second COVID-19 case was confirmed in March. But protesters angry at the government’s handling of the epidemic clashed with police in June.

Restrictions were eased at the end of July and, despite a rise in infections since, the government has been reluctant to tighten up again as the economy was teetering, and Nepal’s poor could ill-afford to stay away from markets or work.

Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli has told Nepalis that they have strong immunity and has advised them to strengthen it with traditional remedies like drinking hot water with tumeric.

The old, densely populated city of Kathmandu and its temple studded valley account for 44 percent of Nepal’s infections and more than one-thirds of deaths.

Authorities say the nation’s overstretched health infrastructure, with few critical care beds, is in danger of being overwhelmed.

Kharel waited grimly for more victims to arrive at the crematorium.

“It is your job, and if one is finished there is another waiting.”

Additional reporting Navesh Chitrakar; Editing by Alasdair Pal & Simon Cameron-Moore

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