Stranded in Nepal without HIV medicine

Wang Tang (not his real name) had never been to Nepal before, but at the end of March 2020 it was one of the few countries that had not closed its borders with China. Since he was desperate to get away from Beijing after having had to stay at home for months after the coronavirus outbreak spread throughout China, he bought a ticket.

But days after he arrived, while he was staying in Pokhara, the fourth stop on his trip, the local government announced that the city would be shut down. He heard that the lockdown would not last longer than a month.

As someone who is living with HIV, he had brought along enough HIV treatment to last for a month. However, he soon learned that the re-opening of the city was to be postponed, which meant that he was at risk of running out of the medicine he needed to take regularly in order to suppress his HIV viral load and stay healthy.

Mr Wang swallowed hard while counting the remaining tablets. He had no idea how to get more.

As the lockdown dragged on, it seemed that no end was in sight. Mr Wang started to take his medicine every other day so that his supply would last a little bit longer.

He contacted his friends back at home, hoping that they could send medicine to Nepal, but they couldn’t. The country was under lockdown—nothing could be imported.

Then, Mr Wang contacted his friend Mu-Mu, the head of Beijing Red Pomegranate, a nongovernmental organization providing volunteer services for people living with HIV. It was with Mu-Mu’s help that Mr Wang learned how to obtain HIV treatment after he was diagnosed as living with HIV. Having known each other for many years, Mu-Mu had the trust of his friend. Mu-Mu contacted the UNAIDS Country Office for China to see if it was possible to deliver medicines to Mr Wang. A UNAIDS staff member quickly got in touch with the UNAIDS Country Office for Nepal.

Everything happened so quickly that Mr Wang was shocked when he received a message from Priti Acharya, who works for AHF Nepal and had been contacted by the UNAIDS Nepal office, saying that she would bring the medicine to him.

The next day, Ms Acharya rode her motorbike for 15 km on a dusty road before reaching the place where she would meet Mr Wang. When he came down from the mountains to meet her, Ms Acharya, drenched in sweat, was waiting under the midday sun.

“I was so happy and thankful for her hard work. She gave me a sunny Nepalese smile in return, as well as detailed instructions on the medicine’s dosage,” said Mr Wang.

They took a photograph together, then Mr Wang watched Ms Acharya as she left on her motorbike. Her image, disappearing in the distance, is carved into his memory. To attend the five-minute meeting, Ms Acharya had to ride a round trip of more than 30 km.

“For half a month or so, I had been suffering from pain and anxiety almost every day due to the lack of medication and the loneliness of being in a foreign country on my own. I could not believe that I got the HIV medicine in such a short time,” said Mr Wang. After the trip, he wrote to thank Ms Acharya, explaining how important the medicine he now had in his hand was: “it’s life-saving.”

At the end of his stay in Nepal, Mr Wang wanted to do something for UNAIDS. As he is an experienced photographer, he volunteered to carry out a photo shoot for UNAIDS’ Nepal office.

The subject he chose was former soccer player Gopal Shrestha, the face of an HIV charity in Nepal and the first person living with HIV to reach the summit of Mount Everest. After his HIV diagnosis in 1994, Mr Shrestha launched the Step-Up Campaign and spent many years climbing mountains worldwide, hoping to give strength and hope to people living with HIV.

In 2019, Mr Shrestha reached the peak of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, recording a historic breakthrough for people living with HIV. “If 28 000 people have already climbed Mount Everest, why can’t I?” he said. “By climbing the highest mountain in the world, I want to prove that we are no different from anyone else and that we can all make a difference.”

“The moment I saw him, I could tell he was a sophisticated man,” said Mr Wang. Without instructions, Mr Shrestha posed naturally in front of the camera. He displayed confidence and charm. His eyes, content and clear, reflected nature’s beauty. “The eyes surely are the window to the soul,” Mr Wang said.

Mr Wang is looking forward to his next trip to Nepal. After the pandemic, Pokhara’s lakeside will be flooded with tourists, and he looks forward to seeing the mountain town bustling with people like it used to.

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