A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) survey of 700 businesses and 400 individuals, and consultations with over 30 private sector organizations and government agencies, came to a sobering finding: “The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains, shut or threatened the survival of small and informal enterprises, and made people highly vulnerable to falling back into poverty through widespread loss of income and jobs.”
This situation can be tackled only with swift and extreme measures. The consensus is that the government decision to continuously extend the lockdown without seemingly exploring other alternatives is dead wrong. (Even though the lockdown seems to have eased up a bit of late, the country is far from being fully open to business.)
Sociologist Mrigendra Kumar Karki fears complete and partial lockdowns, which are likely to continue in the foreseeable future, will further widen the gap between haves and have-nots, as it is the poor who will suffer disproportionately. “There must be comprehensive short- and long-term studies on the multifarious impact of the lockdowns, and policy measures swiftly enacted to mitigate the effects,” he says.
Karki also points to the political implications of the extended lockdown. He argues people are gradually losing their trust in the government. “There is a feeling that the government won’t be able to help them if they get infected. People at the community level are themselves preparing to deal with the virus,” Karki says. He fears the mistrust between the state and its people will widen in the coming days.
In the Initial days, the lockdown disproportionately impacted daily-wage earners. The government tried to address the problem by providing them food-grains through local governments. Now, the lockdown is starting to weigh heavy even on those in organized sectors who rely on monthly salary for their livelihoods. Many private organizations have either not paid their staff, or delayed the payment. To take just one example, of around 500,000 people employed in tourism, many have already lost their jobs while others are on unpaid leave.
The extended lockdown is harming all sectors. “With almost 85 percent of the working population in Nepal informally employed, such work avenues provide no significant assurance to the informal economy. It instead has possibly worsened poverty, put food security at risk, increased social tension, and threatened mental health amongst informal workers,” says the aforementioned UNDP survey titled Rapid Assessment of Socio-Economic Impact of Covid-19.
Long, dark tunnel
Dr Kapil Dev Upadhyaya, a consultant psychiatrist at Center for Mental Health and Counselling (CMC-Nepal), says people are getting increasingly frustrated at the prospect of having to stay cooped up in their homes indefinitely.
“It is not only about the lockdown. People seem worried they may not be treated if they catch the virus. They have little faith in our shambolic healthcare and quarantine systems,” he adds. As a result, Upadhyaya foresees many more “mental and physical health problems” down the line.
The number of suicide cases has increased. According to the data provided by Nepal Police, 1105 people committed suicide between March 24 and May 30, a daily average of 16.25 compared to the average of 14-15 before the lockdown.
As the economic hardship starts to bite, the fear of looting, burglary and other forms of social crimes has increased, too. Such incidents are more likely in rural areas with low presence of security forces.
There is also an urgent need to provide jobs to the unemployed. In 1996, when the Maoists began their armed insurgency, they had recruited large numbers of unemployed people from rural areas. “Today, a failure to create jobs for the youth could once more threaten Nepal’s political stability,” says asks Hemant Malla, a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police. Notably, the Maoist splinter group led by Netra Bikram Chand has already launched an armed insurgency.
As the number of infected people is increasing by the day, chances of immediately and completely lifting the lockdown are slim. Other countries are gradually opening up their economy. In our case, there has been a continuous lockdown starting March 24—and the government is struggling to justify it. Unless there is a radical shift in the thinking of state authorities, things will only go from bad to worse.