By this time, some of the passengers were losing patience and venting off steam. They were tired, hungry, thirsty and fed up with repeating the same information over and over again, with the long queues. We were really feeling bad for the elderly people because this homecoming was made unnecessarily difficult and stressful for everyone.
Each passenger is required to have someone to meet them. Guardians and receiving families have to also provide information about themselves and wait in a different area. Each passenger is also photographed with the guardian before going home.
Finally, we were let go. We were very curious and asked why our parents needed to come, as we would not have liked them exposed to the holding centre environment. The staff explained that it was important for contact tracing. Finally, more than seven hours after landing in Kathmandu, we were home.
The days since, we have been thinking about what could have been done better on arrival for the passengers to make it more convenient and less tortuous.
Firstly, measures could easily have been taken so that the same information about each passenger was shared right down the line from the Nepal Embassy in Washington right till the holding centre. Why ask the passengers to repeat the same information ad nauseum? The same redundant information was collected multiple times.
Many passengers complained that though they had been tested negative before travel, they might actually have got infected during the 7.5 hour long process which demanded multiple exposure and interaction at different places and with different people from the airport to the holding centre.
We were surprised to learn that the Ministry of Health actually has the Hamro Swasthya app which, with some modifications, can be just one electronic form that can be used everywhere for repatriated Nepalis. Making this app comprehensive by incorporating the information of health declaration and traveler declaration form together, it would digitise all the information that we were repeatedly providing on the same system.
Passengers can be told about this app by the Nepal embassies abroad or while buying the ticket, and it could be mandatory to have it filled before boarding. For the people who do not own a smart phone or are not able to use the app, the same information can be entered in a web-based system by getting an assistance desk in the airport itself, by using the relevant human resource and logistics.
This would reduce the administrative effort as well as unwanted exposure and interaction among people, and also save the information digitally to be accessed anywhere from the system.
The Nepal government can take very good individual initiatives, as we know, but lacks the coordination capacity to integrate them, and bundle them seamlessly together for effective implementation. Proper and efficient use of communication tools and technology can easily solve this problem online, make travel more efficient, and also minimise human contact.
The difference with Maryland is that Nepal, despite more than three months of lockdown, still lacks adequate testing, contact tracing and proper management of Nepalis returnees from India. Had there been adequate test evidencing, a decrease in seven-day average cases could have been used to ease the lockdown safely.
Unfortunately, we in Nepal are relaxing restrictions even while the number of cases are going up. This is not a wise way to handle the pandemic, and actually reverses all the gains made by the lockdown. For now, the most effective thing the government can do is to increase testing, enforce mask use and physical separation in public places.
This is not easy to do even in America, as we have seen. In Kathmandu, the use of masks is surprisingly common (probably because people are used to wearing them because of the pollution) although there is still a lot of crowding the markets and streets.
Wearing a mask reduces transmission by 14.3%, and a physical distance of 1 meter reduces it by 10.2% . The risk decreases with further increasing distance. This information needs to get out to the public in an easy-to-understand way – and not just on the mobile phone rings.