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Traveller Assist Evacuates Scientists From Costa Rican Jungle During COVID-19 Global Lockdown

At 02:45hrs, global medical and security assistance provider, Traveller Assist received a phone call from a distressed male who explained that he was a member of a small scientific team who had been on a remote expedition in the jungles of Costa Rica for the past 12-weeks; with absolutely no contact with the outside world, and seemingly no idea about the global lockdown that is in place due to Covid-19.

The group had been monitoring global warming affects on jungle plants and animals as part of an independent study funded through a religious institution. They had a helicopter scheduled to pick them up on the Sunday, but it failed to show. After waiting for 24-hours, the group decided to hike out, taking five-days, and sustaining one minor injury.

Danny Kaine, Head of Assistance at Traveller Assist explained, “Due to the complex nature of this case, one of our Case Managers called me at 03:00hrs to explain the surreal situation. It’s certainly not the strangest case we have ever received, but I wanted to authenticate that it was real and not a hoax (which does happen). Luckily we have a very good relationship with the helicopter providers in CR and so we called each one and managed to confirm that a pick-up had been scheduled, but due to the lockdown; they could not fly and they had not been able to communicate with the group.”

The group of scientists were made up of eight males and three females from four different countries, and two local guides.

Luckily, one of the scientists is a former student of a university that Traveller Assist is retained by to provide global travel risk management services, and so he still carries the 24/7 emergency assistance details with him. The expedition leader made the decision to call Traveller Assist after being told about the global lockdown upon emerging from the jungle and finding the means to recharge batteries and find a phone signal.

Our first priority was to keep the group as isolated as possible and to assess their health, as well as provide medical assistance for one of the members who had fallen and suffered cuts and bruises.

“We activated two local ground agents, one of who is a medical doctor, and is retained by Traveller Assist, to coordinate a safe-house where the scientists could stay, and also to provide medical assessments, and to deliver food and drinking water.” Explained Kaine.

The entire group were uninsured and so we were given the contact details of the religious institution who had funded the expedition. Upon calling them and explaining the situation, they were extremely helpful and agreed to cover the costs for all assistance and repatriation services.

The advice of Traveller Assist was for the group to shelter-in-place. Other than one of the local guides, the rest of the group had not been in contact with any other person other than our local doctor who had taken precautions when assessing them by wearing PPE. The group had been in a jungle environment, for just over 12-weeks, with no symptoms of Covid-19.

However, the group made the collective decision that they all wanted to return to their home countries.

With a starting point of Costa Rica, especially during a global lockdown, there are no direct flights to any of the four countries this group are from and the last thing we wanted was for any of the group to become stranded or quarantined along the way. We also wanted to avoid sending non-US citizens through the United States.

The Traveller Assist team were able to redirect an air ambulance that was in Panama, and scheduled to return to the US on an empty leg. They picked up two US citizens and returned them home. For the remaining nine members, with full cooperation from the religious institution, we chartered a private jet from San Jose to the Netherlands where four of the scientists were from, and all other members were able to carry-on their onward journeys to the UK and Germany.

In the past three-months, Traveller Assist has successfully evacuated over 800 people back to their home countries during this unprecedented event, including NGO workers from Iraq, Sudan and Somalia. Scientists from Antarctica and Papua New Guinea. Students from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand. Oil & Gas workers from Sierra Leone. And pleasure travellers from over 50-countries.

Danny Kaine added, “Having reliable networks in place, with local knowledge, who we can trust, has always been the foundation on which Traveller Assist was built, and enables us to operate effectively at short notice, providing an unrivalled service in some of the most remote and complex regions in the world.”

Traveller Assist continues to provide medical and security assistance, logistical support and operational advice to both business and pleasure travellers who have remained, or are stranded in-country during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

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Coronavirus: Are We Overreacting?

Written By Danny Kaine, Head of Assistance at Traveller Assist.

Let’s put this into perspective. In 2019, the Centre for Disease Control reports that 61,200 people died from the common flu virus. That’s 168 deaths per day! Compared to Coronavirus that was first reported on December 31st with 213 deaths in total until January 31st. Based on last years statistics, 5,208 people have died of the common flu in that same time period.

As a qualified Critical Care Paramedic and a graduate of Harvard Medical School’s, Preventing the Next Pandemic program - I was also on the ground in Sierra Leone in 2014 during the outbreak of Ebola and have coordinated several complex medical evacuations for Lassa fever and SARS patients. Over the years, I have also personally contracted West Nile virus, Zika and Malaria due to operating in complex regions, at short notice, for long periods of time.

As the Head of Assistance for a medical assistance company, it is quite literally my job to stay on top of the latest health issues that threaten travellers around the world, and more importantly; how to respond. Traveller Assist has received over 30 separate queries from corporate and insurance clients to ask what they should do.

Wuhan Coronavirus, while highly infectious, is reported to have a low fatality rate, with a mortality rate of only 2%, compared to SARS that had a mortality rate of 9.6%, Lassa at 10-20% and Ebola at 50%.

As employers, educators and insurers, we all have a duty of care to our travellers and want to provide them the best possible advice, to keep them as safe and stress free as possible.

The coronavirus is spread through respiratory vapour, such as when someone sneezes or coughs into the air around you. Influenza viruses and common cold viruses are also spread this way. As with all viruses, practicing basic hygiene is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and the spread to others:

  • Wash your hands with soap or use a hand sanitiser that contains alcohol.

  • Sneeze and cough into tissues or the crook of your elbow.

  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially people exhibiting respiratory symptoms and fever.

  • Stay home when you're sick to stop of the spread of any virus.

  • Regularly and thoroughly clean surfaces, such as counter tops and door handles, with a disinfectant.

Even though the risk is low right now, it does not mean that the virus will not mutate, and everyone should be armed with the facts. You shouldn't discount or disregard the virus completely just because you don’t live in or travel to China, but don't get overly stressed or anxious about it either. 

 

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Nepali Government In Collusion With Private Clinic And Helicopter Company To Close IPPG Volunteer Clinics

Written by Jonathan Bancroft, Managing Director of Traveller Assist.

For the past two-years, the Nepali government has vehemently denied their involvement in the helicopter rescue scam that has defrauded millions of dollars from foreign insurers and claimed the lives of several trekkers. In fact, the Tourism Ministry has not only denied that the fraud happens at all, but they have also gone as far as to accuse the accusers of lying to frame them, in what has been assessed by PR and legal experts as a coordinated media campaign attempting to cover up the governments involvement.

However, a new deal that has been announced in Nepal appears to show collusion between the Government, a private clinic and at least one helicopter company.

Two well-respected, volunteer mountain and travel medicine clinics that have saved the lives of hundreds of travellers have been forced to close down by the local government who have been pressured into ending their agreement with International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) and Community Action Nepal (CAN).

IPPG had in the past provided free care for porters and local people, as well as providing treatment for trekkers with acute mountain sickness. Only 5% of patients that they saw were evacuated by helicopter, and only then in life-threatening situations.

But, since the new clinic has taken over, it’s estimated that over 60% of patients have been evacuated to Kathmandu to a hospital that is partly owned by the same people who also own a helicopter company; and profits greatly from medical rescues.

Gokyo International Medical Centre is a relatively new private clinic set-up to replace IPPG clinics in the Khumbu Region on the Gokyo trekking route, but instead of treating patients in place as IPPG had expertly done in the past, a majority of trekkers are now lifted by helicopter and taken to a hospital in Kathmandu.

Who owns what?

On the face of it, Gokyo International Medical Centre is owned by Tenzing Sherpa who is the owner of Namaste Lodge in Gokyo, and he runs the clinic with his brother who is a junior doctor.

However, the clinic itself is partnered with ERA Health Centre in Kathmandu and is financed by Mr. Bhanu Dhakal (who also owns First Assistance Nepal), Kumar Thapaliya (also owns Mountain Heli Charter Service) and Tashi Lakpa Sherpa (also owns Seven Summit Treks, 14 Peak Expeditions and Sherpa & Swiss Adventures).

The clinic is partnered with Easy Heli Charter Service, a company also owned by Tashi Lakpa Sherpa.

Both ERA Health Centre and Easy Heli Charter Service have both been named by the Government’s own investigation in a Kathmandu Post article for billing exorbitant rates, being involved in unnecessary helicopter rescues, over-treatment of patients to increase medical billing and misdiagnosis of patients.

In 2019, Seven Summit Treks were also fined for issuing fake permits to climbers for Everest and in addition, lost seven climbers on 8,000m peaks in Nepal. The family of one trekker was asked to pay $750,000 USD to recover his body.

Nick Mason, Chair of IPPG, a UK-based charity said, “The business model for the new clinic would appear to be to evacuate as many trekkers as possible to Kathmandu where it is alleged they are often subjected to excessive or fictitious investigations and treatment.”

IPPG said its doctors faced hostility and abusefrom local lodge owners with close ties to the new private clinic.

Heli rescue scam

In 2018, medical assistance company Traveller Assist announced that after a 12-month investigation, they had uncovered a helicopter rescue scam that had defrauded millions of dollars from foreign insurers and had claimed the lives of several trekkers.

On one side, officials from Nepal’s Tourism Ministry admitted that the fraud was happening and promised to investigate it, while on the other side, other officials were denying that it happened at all and instead pointed the finger at Traveller Assist. They issued a press release to say that an international assistance company had used lies to frame the governments involvement.

Danny Kaine, Head of Assistance at Traveller Assist, who also spearheaded the insurance fraud investigation said, “Just when we started to gain the cooperation of Tourism Ministry officials to stop the fraud from happening, other government officials derailed these talks by issuing bogus press releases to the local media who of course printed them and by doing so, became complicit in enabling the fraud to carry on.”

Nepal’s Tourism Ministry said last year that it investigated the scams, issued a report and drafted new rules governing helicopter rescue and medical treatment of trekkers to stop the fraud, but the rules were never implemented.

A government official inside the Tourism Ministry who does not wish to be named has said that the new rules were not implemented because the media pressure was no longer on them to do so and he also admitted that the government does profit, both directly and indirectly from the fraud.

Since 2018, Traveller Assist has deployed expat medical and rescue staff to Nepal at the beginning of each busy season, based at common rescue points, but they have received hostility and threats against them from local business owners who are losing money due to the crackdown on unnecessary helicopter rescues and over-treatment at hospitals.

Between October and December of 2019, Traveller Assist provided medical assistance for 113 cases, 51 of which required a helicopter rescue from 17 different rescue points, and included three horseback rescues to lower altitudes.

Jonathan Bancroft, Managing Director of Traveller Assist said, “It's worth noting that in the same time period, our in-country team has stopped an additional 17 unnecessary helicopter rescues from happening whereby the travellers' said they were almost being forced by trekking companies to be 'rescued' and Guides were using 'scare tactics' to panic the travellers. Our company also investigated over 100 invoices from four different hospitals in Kathmandu that were considered exorbitant and also billed for unnecessary treatment and fictitious treatment.”

The fraud is still happening.

Visit Nepal 2020

In a year that is being promoted by Nepal as ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ where the Government hopes to attract over 2 million visitors to the country, it’s imperative that all travel insurance companies educate their travellers on how to avoid being caught up in the scams in Nepal, and for all assistance companies to implement measures to protect both travellers and insurers.

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The Future Of Travel Insurance In Nepal

The Tourism Ministry of Nepal has introduced a new bylaw that requires all climbers who want to tackle Everest to submit their full medical history and to show proof of a specialist travel insurance policy that includes air and ground, search and rescue; and in-country medical assistance costs.

After a deadly season on Everest, where nine climbers lost their lives earlier this year, these new measures have been introduced in an effort to reduce the amount of deaths on Everest.

However, not one of the nine deaths on Everest in 2019 were caused by pre-existing medical conditions and all nine travellers did have insurance to climb Everest, which begs the question of how this new bylaw will make Everest safer.

In fact, this is just one of several new measures that will be introduced over the coming months.

A Tourism Ministry insider who wishes to remain anonymous has confirmed that the Nepali government are in talks with two large insurers, in India and China, to underwrite a plan that would make it mandatory for all foreign visitors to purchase a Nepali travel insurance policy upon arrival in-country; and would void all foreign insurance in the country.

This would mean that all foreign travel insurance companies will no longer be able to cover travellers to Nepal, and all helicopter rescue and medical assistance would be handled in-country by the local assistance companies assigned by the insurer(s).

The Tourism Ministry has also ditched its liaison officer program after it was revealed that Nepali government appointed officers were pocketing the money and never actually deploying to the regions that they were assigned to.

In their place, the Ministry has confirmed that they are looking at plans to deploy Nepali doctors, police, military and rescue specialists to rescue points around the Himalayas in an effort to take control of, and coordinate helicopter rescues.

While this is not expected to happen until the Autumn climbing season next year, it has been suggested that this new development is in preparation for Nepal trying to control the entire insurance and assistance market in their country.

Since the beginning of 2018, after a six-month travel insurance fraud investigation into the helicopter rescue scam in Nepal, Traveller Assist has deployed their own team of expat medical staff each trekking season to Nepal, based at common rescue points, in a bid to reduce fraudulent cases and improve response times for actual rescues.

Danny Kaine, Head of Assistance at Traveller Assist said, “This new bylaw is yet another example of a government who are trying to find solutions for problems they don’t understand. A majority of the deaths that occurred this season were as a result of the crowds that formed at bottlenecks on Everest, resulting in extreme frostbite, hyperthermia, altitude sickness, exhaustion and death.”

Industry experts from around the world have all agreed that a combination of too many climbing permits being issued to climb Everest in 2019 and lack of organisation of so-called, specialist trekking organisations; is what caused a majority of the crowds and ultimately the untimely deaths of climbers.

With the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign coming up for 2020, and Nepal expecting over 2 million visitors; which is an 80% increase of visitors to Nepal so far this year; unless measures are put in place that actually makes trekking in Nepal safer; next years death toll is expected to rise.

Written By Danny Kaine, Head of Assistance at Traveller Assist.

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