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Editorial: Testing time for Nepal

Editorial: Testing time for Nepal

In his August 4th meeting with opposition leaders and health experts, Prime Minister KP Oli expressed his dissatisfaction over the criticism of his government’s handling of the corona crisis. He accused his critics of being quick to blame the government for its shortcomings, while ignoring its achievements in controlling the spread of the virus. We are sorry to say, but there isn’t much it has gotten right. It’s sudden decision to lift the nationwide lockdown, the abrupt reduction in the number of PCR tests despite a steady increase in contagion, and its visible failure to screen those entering Nepal from India—all were egregious failures. 

The experts he consulted on August 4th advised him to re-impose the nationwide lockdown, partially if not completely, and a calibrated lockdown has in fact been imposed. But this is only the first step in effective corona-control. There is now enough evidence, from multiple places, of community spread in Nepal. Health experts were already warning that the country would be headed down this road when the government lifted the nationwide lockdown on July 21st. There is reason to believe concern over public health was not the prime motivator behind that decision. 

The re-imposition of lockdown measures has to be coupled with widespread testing, something the government failed to do during the previous nationwide lockdown. In the absence of such measures, restrictions like confining people to their homes for months on end make little sense. It will only delaying the inevitable. The speed with which the virus has spread of late also has a whiff of inevitability. Thankfully, more people are now being tested, and public booths have been set up to test likely suspects. Yet, even this may not be enough. 

The time may have come to randomly test people in communities to get a fair assessment of the spread. In cities like New Delhi and Mumbai, such random tests have yielded troubling results, and we can expect something similar here. All our actions from hereon have to be taken assuming the worst. This might mean further hardships for people, especially the daily-wage earners. The government thus has to work out a mechanism to provide for them, through direct cash transfers if need be. Having gotten so much wrong thus far, any more mistakes in handling this growing crisis could prove catastrophically costly.