A guest contribution by Shritu Shrestha
In a series of articles, the Wuppertal Institute would like to provide an insight into the challenges that some of the developing countries in which the Institute is active face in the
context of the Corona pandemic. This article outlines the situation in Nepal.
The first case of COVID-19 in Nepal was seen on 13th January, which remained the only case for a long time until 17th March, when the second case emerged. Cases in Nepal have been rising ever since albeit at a slower pace. In view of increasing cases in the neighbouring India, Nepal introduced national lock-down on March 24th for a week which has now extended till 7th May, which is likely to be further extended. Considering the country’s weak health system, this is perhaps a wise decision to stop the spread of the virus but it comes at a huge socio-economic cost. The dealing with this pandemic has many certain uncertainties!
Humanitarian at stake
Nepal is far from prepared to respond to a pandemic like this. There are lack of PCR and PPE and other basic health infrastructures including quarantine and isolation facilities (capacity). Mishandling the situation and corruption has made it worse. Industries are shut down due to the lack of man-power and raw materials coming from India, China and other countries. Main source of the economy – tourism, agriculture, and remittance have been hit hard.
This crisis has hit migrant workers the hardest, a large number of them who have flocked into cities from far flung villages in Nepal and many who work in India and the Middle East. The nation wide lockdown, announced hastily with little preparation with just a day’s notice left many people stranded. Many migrant workers started rushing to their villages from the cities due to loss of daily job, cost of living in the city and the fear of virus while facing the pandemic far away from family. Some were able to catch last buses or even walked for days while some were stranded in the Nepal-India border (few also swam across the river). Other migrant workers in India and Gulf countries, who bring crucial remittance to Nepal’s economy, could not return home even if they wanted to and some are left without a pay - bringing down the remittance earnings of the country to a near halt. Some migrant workers, mainly in Gulf countries, who live in over crowded spaces are at higher risk of exposure to the virus. There is a lack of resources to bring more than 1.4M migrant workers home or keep them in quarantine once they are back. On the other hand, the treatment of COVID-19 positive patients in villages is difficult (almost impossible). They have to be brought to the capital city – Kathmandu either via road or air or the nearest hospitals designated by the government. This health pandemic has become a humanitarian disaster for Nepal.
Nepalese stranded at the Nepal-India border (source: The Kathmandu Post)
Nepal, a landlocked country, also shares a porous border with India in the South. Although the cases are comparatively few (54 cases until 28 April) and no deaths, it is dangerous to open the border with India where cases/fatalities are increasing rapidly. As Nepal is also dependent on India for daily amenities including food grains, disruption in imports is likely to affect Nepal severely. Shortage of supplies of essential food, medical supplies and petroleum products, mainly from India, may worsen in coming weeks as the supply chain may be broken by the virus outbreak in India and abroad. India has already hinted at halting export of rice and the Nepal government has supplies to last for the next six months.
On a daily basis during lock-down, mainly in the city of Kathmandu, markets are open at 2-2 hours shifts in the mornings and evenings. Social distancing is difficult at some places as people rush to buy and get back home within the lock-down opening time, increasing the risk of virus spread. Considering this, online deliveries are increasing in the city. The crisis has created a new digital business but it only caters to a small group of people who have access to the internet and e-payment systems. On the digital transformation front, Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s oldest and largest public university announced to start online classes on 22 April and many other private educational institutes have started to conduct classes online early on. However, not all the students have access to technology yet, including continuous internet connectivity.
What can be done
Nepal’s current lockdown is seen as a time for health facilities to prepare and scale up testing and contact tracing. However, in my opinion, the government is still not doing enough to fight this pandemic. NGOs/INGOs are relatively quiet as international funds and cooperation have dried up. Beside developing plans to handle the pandemic, one should not be late in developing post-corona strategies. As far as urban planning is concerned, I think Kathmandu’s lack of open spaces, which could have been used for isolation camps and medical testing must be prioritized. During the 2015 earthquake, people lamented the lack of open space but it was soon forgotten. Various reports and media show that during a month of lockdown, air quality in Kathmandu and other bigger cities in Nepal has got better, which is listed as one of the polluted cities in the world. This is the time to learn the lessons and develop innovative concepts to protect the environment along with economic development. For example: focus on public transportation and emphasise on pedestrian and cycling infrastructure to curb vehicle emissions. Post Corona, Nepal must invest more in agriculture which is also hit by climate change and in young men and women coming back from abroad. Youths require support, plans and policies for innovative and sustainable jobs, such as new enterprises including those in the agriculture sector. This will encourage many young Nepalese to stay in the country instead of looking for low paying jobs abroad.
Writing this while calmly working from home in Berlin, I feel privileged!