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What will it take for Nepal to ease the lockdown?

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

What will it take for Nepal to ease the lockdown?

The government was preparing to ease the lockdown in low-risk areas after May 6. But the fear of the already significant movement of people in the country turning into a flood stopped it

Nepal government on May 6 extended the nationwide lockdown against Covid-19 by another 12 days. It did so in spite of heavy pressure from economists and businessmen who were in favor of progressive loosening of the lockdown. 

The hard reality is that Nepal is unprepared for a post-lockdown situation. “Back in the middle of January, Nepal became the first South Asian country to detect the novel coronavirus,” says Dr Kiran Raj Pandey, who has been closely tracking the virus in Nepal. “Even the World Health Organization was warning us that we were a high-risk country. And yet there were next to no preparations.” 

As Nepal fumbled for a response, developed countries did two major things: carry out massive testing and gauge the capacity of their healthcare system. Through massive testing, they identified the actual status of the spread. That, in turn, prepared them to start easing the lockdown in low-risk areas. There has been no such effort in Nepal. For instance, Nepal has failed to effectively manage the flow of people along the porous Nepal-India border during the lockdown. Nor has it been able to control the free movement of its nationals within the country. 

It has been almost five months since the first outbreak; corona detection kits and medical equipment are still in short supply. The Nepal Army was entrusted to procure medical supplies from abroad a month ago, yet procedural hurdles continue to hamstring its efforts. In the absence of test kits, testing has been halted in parts of the country. In other parts, testing machines have stopped functioning. 

Indefinitely prolonging the lockdown without also carrying out the requisite number of tests is prolonging the inevitable, and will contribute to further impoverishment of the daily wage earners who are already struggling. Yet there is also no hard data on the social and economic impacts of the lockdown in Nepal. In this situation, Dr Pandey advises gradual easing of the lockdown coupled with massive testing. 

The government was apparently preparing to ease the lockdown in low-risk areas after May 6. But the fear of the already significant movement of people inside the country turning into a flood stopped it. 

A team of security forces has given color codes to 77 districts on the basis of risk: red (high risk area), yellow (partial risk area) and green (low risk area). According to the Home Ministry, 29 districts are categorized as red, 28 as yellow, and 20 as green areas. 

But it is not easy for security forces to control people’s movement. Many vehicles have gotten travel passes from local authorities, which the security personnel must honor. Already, people who had gone out of Kathmandu at the start of the lockdown are returning, and most of them are not following quarantine guidelines. Thus even though Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa was in favor of a gradual easing of the lockdown, he had to back down after the Health Ministry intervened. 

Similarly, post-lockdown measures have not been thought through. Doctors suggest continuing with social distancing measures for months even if the lockdown is eased. 

On May 1, a doctor’s team of Kiran Raj Pandey, Anup Subedee, Bishesh Khanal and Bhagawan Koirala published their joint study: “Covid-19 Control Strategies and Intervention Effects in Resource Limited Settings: A Modeling Study.” It suggests measures that can be adopted after easing the lockdown. The study says, “A month-long lockdown and physical distancing interventions combined with an active case finding intervention instituted early is likely to effectively control a potential epidemic, however physical distancing and testing interventions have to continue for a year.”

The findings suggest that the best control strategy against the epidemic is a combination of interventions that identify and isolate infected individuals and reduce contact between individuals. “A lockdown can prevent the escalation of the epidemic, but is likely to be of limited value if no additional control measures are put in place,” the report says.  

One problem is that the country’s average age is 24.6 years. Most of the youth may not show any symptoms and simply pass on the virus to the infirm and the elderly, who could be affected much worse. This is also why widespread testing, including that of the youth, is vital. 

“Again, the easiest and most effective way of stopping the virus from spreading is massive testing. If the pandemic goes out of control, it would be very difficult for us to stop it,” Dr Pandey warns.