Lockdown is considered the most effective way to contain the community spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).
Countries like Italy, the United Kingdom, France, India, among others, are under complete lockdown. Japan and South Korea are under pressure to implement it in toto. “When it comes to containing the novel coronavirus, there really is no other viable option,” says Dr Khem Karki, a public health expert at Ministry of Health and Population while urging all Nepalis to strictly follow lockdown rules. Thankfully, compared to India, other South Asian countries have witnessed relatively fewer infections.
Initially, Nepal had announced a week-long lockdown, which has now been extended by another week. People are starting to question: Will this lockdown be extended indefinitely? Government sources do not have a definite answer. They say the lockdown will be under constant review and will be relaxed if the corona risk drops. Says Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Pokhrel who is leading Nepal’s fight against Covid-19, “We are closely following developments. We cannot actually say how long it [the lockdown] will go.”
The duration of Nepal’s lockdown will also depend on how the situation evolves in India. With China well on its way to containing the virus, and given its strict travel restrictions, there is less of a threat to Nepal from the north. But due to the open border and the provision of free movement of people across it, Nepal will have a harder time controlling the spread of the coronavirus from India.
“If the number of cases remain static, Nepal might think of easing the lockdown. But that too will take around a month. Also, if there is an increase in cases in India, Nepal would be bound to keep the borders shut and prolong the lockdown,” says Pramod Jaiswal, Research Director at Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE). “I also don’t see any possibility of resumption of international flights to major affected countries anytime soon.”
In the worst-case scenario in India, more and more Nepali migrant workers will look to enter Nepal, lockdown or not. Conversely, if India can keep the number of positive corona cases low, most of them are likely to stay put there and thus the pressure on Nepal will ease considerably.
But what kind of indications are we getting from India? On current evidence, could its lockdown be extended beyond 21 days? According to the Press Information Bureau of India, the country’s official press agency, “There are rumors and media reports, claiming that government will extend the lockdown when it expires. The cabinet secretary has denied these reports, and stated that they are baseless.”
Earlier, the research of Ronojoy Adhikari and Rajesh Singh of University of Cambridge had shown that India’s 21-day lockdown was inadequate and that it could go up to 49 days. Indian officials, however, say they currently have no plans to extend the 21-day window. However, they have not completely ruled out an extension as well.
Usually, the symptoms of the novel coronavirus emerge within 14 days after people get infected. So if those with the virus have already entered the country, they will show some symptoms within this period. If not, there is no risk from them. As Nepal has already banned all international air travel until April 15, the bigger challenge will again come from the porous land borders with India.
Infectious disease physician Dr Anup Subedi says removal of lockdown depends on the progress on testing, isolation and contact tracing. “Additional testing kits and logistics have just arrived. Now we will do more tests, which in turn will help us determine the gravity of the matter,” he say. “But no, I do not think two weeks will be sufficient to contain the novel coronavirus in Nepal. Yes, what we can do is take additional measures to ease people’s daily lives should there be an extension of the lockdown deadline.”
Dr Subedi also says there is a strong case to be made for continued restriction on the movement of people across the border and to allow only essential supplies.
Despite the request of the Nepal government to stay put wherever they are, Nepali migrant workers continue to flock just across the border. Many of those who have gotten to enter the country have not implemented the 14-day isolation rules either. Even for the stranded ones, the government of Nepal has no option but to allow its citizens to enter their country.
“It is insensitive on the part of both Nepal and India not to take back their citizens stranded along the Indo-Nepal border,” says Uddhab Pyakurel, an assistant professor at Kathmandu University and a researcher on India-Nepal border. Yet that could pose a huge challenge if those who enter cannot be quarantined.
Additionally, thousands of Nepali migrant workers in various parts of India are struggling. The Indian government has pledged to provide them with basic necessities. But they are not convinced and want to get back to their homeland as soon as possible.
No one should be surprised if the complexities of people-to-people ties and an open border between Nepal and India lead to a further extension to Nepal’s novel coronavirus lockdown.