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Returning migrants in Nepal catching mental illness

The Annapurna Express

The Annapurna Express

Returning migrants in Nepal catching mental illness

A quarantine facility established at Jana Jagriti Basic School at Tikapur-2, Kailali.

On June 1, Chuhan Singh Nepali, 48, came back to his village from India’s Dharchula where he worked as a laborer. He appeared normal when he was sent to a quarantine facility established at Janajyoti Basic School at Tikapur-2 of Kailali district. But a few days in, he started behaving differently. Now, after the two-week mandatory quarantine, he keeps staring at things and looks depressed. He cannot sleep at night.

Chuhan lives in a landless squatter settlement at Ganeshpur in the district, and he is among many Nepalis in the area who look after their families with money saved in India. Most of them work as daily-wage laborers. Many of them look mentally disturbed these days.

Bikash BK, 28, who is in the same quarantine, is also having mental issues. He often loses his temper. He has beaten his wife several times in the past few days after he returned from India’s Dehradun, accompanied by his wife and two kids. Once, he tried to run away with the kids, leaving the wife behind.

“Chuhan does not talk to others, and remains withdrawn. His behavior has changed a lot,” says Ranjita Chaudhary, a health worker. “He comes to us complaining of headache. But before we can give him a medicine, he leaves, saying he is fine.”

Jagat Damai, 50, who returned from Hyderabad, was sent to the quarantine facility at Tikapur Polytechnic Institute at Tikapur-1. Within two days, he was behaving strangely. He has already tried to jump off the stairs of the building. He keeps talking nonsense and often cries or yells. Sometimes he does not hear what others say. Ramrati Chuadhary, a health worker at the quarantine, observes: “He has troubled us all. He often asks for tranquilizers.” According to her, people who have spent many weeks in the lockdown in India, and are now having to do the same in Nepal, are showing such strange symptoms.

Many of those returning from India are worried about the absence of Covid-19 tests, besides the economic and social stigma they have to face. These people mostly hail from lower-middle class families and loss of their livelihood is an obvious reason for their distress. As Chaudhary puts it, “Daily wage laborers who have to earn each day’s meal are the worst hit. Due to stress, they have lost their sleep and appetite. They get easily irritated.”

Dharma Singh Batala, public health inspector at Tikapur Municipality, reckons the quarantined people are showing signs of depression due to fears caused by negative thoughts and lack of knowledge. “They don’t get proper counselling about what may happen. They are not able to meet their families, and fear social stigmatization when they return home.”

Those in the quarantine get free wi-fi. And there are health workers to give them basic medicines. But these health workers are not trained in mental counselling. “If they had basic counselling skills, it would be of immense help,” Batala adds. “Often the quarantined people cannot describe what’s happening to them. That makes things difficult for us.”