Nepal’s lockdown reality check

Sushma Joshi

Sushma Joshi

Nepal’s lockdown reality check

What is our government’s exit strategy to support millions of young children, vulnerable women, unemployed disabled, and elderly?

A few nights ago, I heard a young child talking with a man outside my lane. The voice of the child was rough, like she was from the villages and hadn’t been educated. The man was laughing occasionally in the casual manner of the laborers who still lived in the giant big building that has been constructed in front of our house as an investment property. Built for $600,000, it is now empty, with no renters coming forward to pay the rumored 10 lakh rupees per room. But a group of young male workers are still living there, no doubt guarding the property. Every evening, I hear beautiful flute music from the same building. But this evening, I heard the voice of an angry young woman who was coercing the child to do something she didn’t want to. The child started to cry hysterically. The man laughed. Then they left.

I have done research in Mumbai and I know child prostitution runs beneath the layers of Nepali society, where family members and guardians often become the enablers of sexual exploitation. While I cannot say with certainty that is what occurred near my house, it disturbed me tremendously. How many women and children are now at the mercy of predatory men, with the income earned from casual, informal work having come crashing down?

The government of Nepal, unlike Western countries, has no social safety net that can protect teenage girls and children. They have no provisions for women who are now out of work—the five kilos of rice, some dal and a few packets of cooking oil can barely meet the needs of women with young children. A young woman who was helping me to clean my kitchen decided it wasn’t worth her while to stand in line at the ward office for this small amount of food.

“Who wants to wait in line for five kilos?” she said, dismissively. Then she said they would ask for nagarikta, and she’d have to go back to her village to get it. Later that week, I saw another woman in my neighborhood who I know has a young daughter become tremendously upset when she realized she’d need her citizenship to get the food being distributed—clearly she didn’t have it on hand.

Most pandemics of the past went on for 18 to 24 months, if not longer. It is likely that a famine as well as surge of coronavirus cases will follow in the autumn, as temperatures cool and food shortages become apparent. Yet does the government know how much grain we have in stock to feed 28 million people? Can it guarantee that it will have enough for the entire population from 23 September 2020 to 12 April 2022, which according to my (jyotish) calculations, will be the time of greatest death and despair? It may be 17 January 2023 before all deaths stop—that is when, according to jyotish, Saturn leaves Capricorn. Coincidentally—although according to jyotish there are no coincidences—Saturn, which rules death, dying, sickness, grief and despair, entered its own house Capricorn on 25 Jan 25, 2020. On 23 Jan, China shut down Wuhan, and on 30 Jan, the WHO declared a pandemic.

While traditional jyotish timing may not be used for government planning any longer, we can look at linear, Western history of pandemics and realize that deaths come in waves and that it rarely ends in a few months. What is our government’s exit strategy to support millions of young children, vulnerable women, unemployed disabled, and elderly? How will it give financial security to the young men and women in urban areas who are now trapped in their homes? What plans does it have to distribute food, vegetables, and medicines?

Provinces have set up systems to deliver old age-pensions, vegetables, and food to people right at their doorstep. Political representatives more accountable than those in Kathmandu hired buses with their own funds and came seeking for their villagers stranded in the capital, at a time when the sirsha netas had shut down the city with no provisions for people to return home. Thousands were forced to walk home for days, with kind people along the way offering them food and partial transport and in all likelihood saving their lives.

Kathmandu may be the capital city, but most of its local ward administrative units have been decimated by years of politicization, neglect, corruption, and non-accountability. The cellphone message saying, “If you suspect you have coronavirus, go to your local health center,” is a bit of a laugh in Kathmandu, because there are no government-funded local health centers, unless you are talking about the major hospitals. How many unemployed women with toddlers can walk to Shukraraj Hospital?

Perhaps the most chilling development in Kathmandu was seeing the video of little children being bathed in bleach before the local officials would give them free food. A global apparatus of authoritarianism, as epitomized by China, coupled with the bleach-can-heal wisdom of a “science is might and right” America, is squeezing vulnerable children and elderly all across the planet. In order to come out safely, we must resist both.