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Nepal relaxing lockdown afterall

Finance and Information Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada told a media briefing on Wednesday evening that the Cabinet extended the COVID-19 lockdown till 18 May, but it had also decided to relax rules on manufacturing, industries and banking sectors. 

These would be partially opened with certain restrictions on distancing and health monitoring of workers, and that the decision about opening up would be done in coordination with local governments. 

The industries included in the list are: food production and processing, dairies, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment manufacturers, water supply, brick kilns, livestock and fisheries, feed industries, sugar, tea and LPG. Also to be opened will be noodles industries, bakeries, poultry, dairy, and processing of other agricultural products.

Among the non-food industries to be relaxed are cement, paint, plywood, plastic pipes, sand and crushers, steel and electrical equipment.

However, the following rules apply: factories cannot have more than ten workers in one place at a time, and workers get health check-ups daily. For the time being, workers also need to stay in dorms, and eat in canteens at their workplaces, without coming in contact with local people or family members.

Too early for Nepal to let its guard down

High school students sit for exams in Adarsha Azad College in Bhaktapur on Wednesday. Schools in Kathmandu Valley were all set to restart in-person classes from next week before authorities decided to put off the citing that new Covid-19 cases have not dropped as expected. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI.

UPDATE: The Kathmandu District administration on Thursday decided to put off the reopening of in-person classes, citing that new Covid-19 cases have not dropped as expected. 

On 5 September, for the first time in nearly five months, there were less than a thousand daily new Covid-19 cases. Since then, new infections per day have mostly stayed below 1,500. 

The rate of infection is also dropping below 9%, and schools in Kathmandu which have remained closed for nearly two years are scheduled to reopen  rom next week. Cinema halls, bars and clubs are already up and running as if it is all over. 

In fact, most Nepalis seem to think the pandemic is over. But it is not. The infection rate is still several times higher than most parts of the world, and with the festival season around the corner there is a danger of a repeat of last year.

Face-to-face classes online, Dinesh Paudel 

About this time in 2020, the government also loosened the lockdown and there was an increase in social and economic activities. Millions travelled from Kathmandu to hometowns, or returned from India ahead of Dasain-Tihar, spreading the virus and eventually leading to the first wave. The only difference this time is that we have vaccines. 

“Given the vaccination drive and natural immunity in the population, there might not be another big spike in near future, which also means fewer hospitalisations,” says virologist at Kathmandu’s Teku hospital Sher Bahadur Pun. “But transmission and breakthrough cases will continue.”

Indeed, Pun narrates a case of his colleague who was fully vaccinated but was infected by Covid-19. His symptoms were not serious, but both his parents were infected next and succumbed to the virus.

The much more contagious Delta variant, which was responsible for the devastating second wave in the Subcontinent, is still circulating in the community, and is the dominant strain of the novel coronavirus in Nepal.

Studies have shown that even vaccinated people can be infected with the Delta variant and spread it. Jabs do not prevent transmission, they just reduce the seriousness of symptoms. And with the vaccinated population still low in many countries, the virus can replicate and mutate further into even more virulent strains.

The Health Ministry’s recent sero-prevalence study has revealed that nearly 69% of people have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, and therefore have natural immunity against the virus. This means quite a large section of the population has been infected in the past, and have developed resistance to the virus. 

To boost or not to boost, Buddha Basnyat

But experts say that this is a misinterpretation and can cause people to disregard proven preventive measures, including masking and vaccination.

Sero-prevalence surveys like the recent study were designed to detect antibodies to measure the spread of the virus in the community. It does not mean people are immune to the virus, and even with vaccinations, ‘breakthrough infections’ of the Delta variant are possible. 

Also, the survey does not show how long after the participants were infected that antibodies were detected in them. This is important because natural immunity lasts up to eight months.

“The key is to vaccinate as many people as possible,” adds Pun, and Nepal is catching up with its inoculation drive. Close to 20% of Nepal’s 30 million people have now been fully vaccinated, and this figure will likely reach 30% by Dasain and 40% by December. 

More vaccines are arriving, including 100,000 doses of BioNTech’s Pfizer through the COVAX initiative for which ultra-cold refrigeration storage is being installed. There are also two new vaccines under trial in Nepal: a Chinese messenger RNA (mRNA) jab, and another developed by Sonafi, a partnership between a French company and UK’s GlaxoSmithKline.

Despite this, experts warn that it is not a time to let our guards down. “It is always better to be overprepared than underprepared,” says Buddha Basnyat, a physician at Patan Academy of Medical Sciences. “We must continue wearing masks and practise safety measures. Only when 80-90% of people have vaccinated will we be out of the woods.”

In fact, recent studies have shown just how effective masks can be in saving lives. In the largest study of mask-wearing yet, researchers conducted a trial in 600 villages and more than 340,000 people in Bangladesh earlier this year and found that mask-wearing tripled in the community and increased physical distancing by 5 percentage points. 

‘When surgical masks were employed, 1 in 3 symptomatic infections were avoided for individuals 60+ years old, the age group that faces the highest risk of death following infection,’ noted Innovation for Poverty Action, one of the partners of the study.

With Dasain around the corner, experts say the government should step up its public awareness campaign so that people limit unnecessary travel and mingling, and ensure mask-wearing even indoors for family gatherings if they cannot be avoided. 

It is the elderly and unvaccinated children who will be most at risk, especially with schools reopening just weeks before the holidays and teachers only getting their first doses recently.  

Says epidemiologist Lhamu Yangchen Sherpa: “Now that we know that the Covid-19 is airborne, we should be especially mindful about enclosed spaces during Dasain, something as simple as moving to the terrace rather than crowding a living room can spare the grandparents and children.”

20 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK

Hard labour

Nepal is bankrupt, the only thing keeping the economy afloat is remittances. Defying all projections, overseas contract workers sent home $8 billion last fiscal year, reaffirming their significance. 

Nepal’s remittance-to-GDP equivalence is highest in Asia at 28% but migrant workers leaving for destination countries are cheated every step of the way, by moneylenders, agents and even the government, instead of being facilitated in their journey.  

Only recently, outgoing workers were forced to wait for up to 28 hours at Teku Hospital just for a rubber-stamped piece of paper to certify they have been vaccinated. The letter didn’t even have a QR code.  

Neglect of the migrant workers is nothing new, it was the same two decades ago. In fact, this report from Nepali Times 20 years ago this week is a tragic reminder that the most essential needs of the people have been ignored all along: food, health care, education, irrigation and employment, to name a few. 

Excerpts from issue #60 14-20 September 2001:

Nepal earns a huge amount in the form of remittances from citizens working abroad, but there are also thousands of Nepalis cheated of their inheritance and land-holdings, lured by the prospect of employment overseas. An investigation by Himal Khabarpatrika last year estimated that remittances from abroad earn Nepal about Rs75 billion annually-more than tourism, foreign aid and exports put together. 

People seeking foreign employment can be cheated twice-within the country and when they reach their destination. The deception begins as soon as a person indicates his interest in foreign employment. The village moneylender is often the first to benefit, as employment agencies require applicants to pay the entire amount involved in seeking and securing a job in one go, before the process is started. Applicants want the money desperately, and moneylenders in the informal sector will give it to them-often at 60% per annum. And, since the supply of workers is contracted and sub-contracted in so many layers, from overseas agencies to Nepali agency to smaller agencies to individual brokers in the countryside, a worker could end up paying double the actual cost of the process. At every layer, the agencies add on a comfortable margin for themselves.  

 The other trap-the bigger one-for workers abroad is the difference between what the employment agencies promise and the actual work conditions they are faced with. Worried and depressed by the prospect of losing their investment and the loss of face, these youths often work in inhuman conditions, just to be able to return having at least broken even. Perhaps because of this, the death rate among the Nepali workers in the Gulf is shockingly high. 

 From archives material of Nepali Times of the past 20 years, site search: www.nepalitimes.com

The human cost of Nepal’s political deadlock

When the coalition government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba took office in July, many had hoped it would restore stability after a prolonged political feud. But the alliance has not even been able to complete government formation, nor pass the budget and important legislation on stricter punishment for gender-based violence.

Turmoil in Parliament this week, including physical confrontations between members that had to be controlled by marshals, has also meant the budget has not budged, and this has led to a government shutdown from Wednesday — affecting hospital care during the pandemic.

Continued opposition by the main opposition UML has meant that besides the budget, critical pieces of ordinance, including one to increase punishment for rape and acid attacks against women have lapsed.

“This has bolstered the morale of criminals because it will protect them from punishment,” says Tika Dahal of the Nepal Organisation of Handicapped Women.

“It is a crime to threaten victims or buy them off, and the inability to pass these ordinances will mean that fewer women will come forward to lodge complaints,” she adds. There has been a significant increase in the number of reported rape cases during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ordinances had in the past months brought down the number of rape cases where the perpetrator’s family tried to negotiate a settlement with the victim through intimidation or out-of-court offers of compensation, including getting the rapist to marry the victim.

The other ordinance to prevent acid and other corrosive chemical attacks has also lapsed. Activist Ujjwal Bikram Thapa who has been helping women victims of acid attacks and lobbying for the legislation says it is a “national shame” that such an important bill has been allowed to lapse.

“Preventing acid attacks on women is not a political issue, it was not for or against any political party,” Thapa said. “If the government cannot act on such a sensitive issue, we as a nation have lost our humanity.”

The law would have increased the punishment to perpetrators of acid attacks to 20 years jail terms, and Rs1 million in fines. If the victim died, the acid assaulter would have to pay compensation to the family. These laws are now not in effect anymore.

Nepal’s Constitution mandates that a law or amendment brought by ordinance must be ratified by Parliament within 60 days of being presented to the House, otherwise it is automatically scrapped. The ordinances had been passed on 18 July and expired on Wednesday.

“We had actually started seeing a drop in attempts to reach settlements in which the rape accused used power, muscle and money to avoid punishment,” says gender rights activist Sangita Timsina. 

Menuka Thapa of the group Rakshya Nepal says that after the ordinance stipulating a three-year jail term for those attempting to settle rapes cases out of court, she had seen a drop in such negotiations.

Last year, when a 16-year-old was raped by multiple men in Saptari, local elders offered the victim’s family Rs55,000 if they forgave the perpetrator. When the family took a stand saying it wanted justice, not money, influential men in the village threatened them from filing a police case. The young woman committed suicide.

But because the ordinance against out-of-court settlement had been passed, the perpetrators Dharma Mandal, Bishnu Mandal, Ranjit Mandal and Ballu Mandal as well as three elders trying to save them from punishment were detained by police.

Similarly, at the other end of the country in Bajhang, a 12-year-old Dalit girl was murdered after rape. The alleged rapist Rajendra Bohra had last year been released from jail after this family paid a mere Rs500 to settle an earlier rape case. If the amendment had been in place, the second crime would not have happened. 

After a series of such rape settlement cases, the government of Prime Minister K P Oli had President Bidya Devi Bhandari sign an ordinance in November last year to amend the laws on rape and other crimes against women. 

Pressure to settle rape cases by offering money or threats against the victims or their families would be punishable by up to three years in prison and Rs30,000 fine. In fact, the amendment added another 6 months in jail if the one pressuring the victim is an elected official.

The parliamentary stalemate has also affected the budget, and from the first of the Nepali month of Ashwin on Friday, the government cannot spend any money which could lead to a shutdown similar to the one that the United States experienced last year after a filibuster in Congress when Donald Trump was president.

But while the US has seen such crises before, this is the first time Nepal has had a government shutdown because the House deadlock has meant that the government’s budget ordinance has lapsed.

The reason for this state of affairs is that Prime Minister Deuba suspended Parliament when it looked like he could not pass an amendment to the Constitution allowing political parties to split with signatures of just 20% of their parliamentary parties. 

This was to facilitate Madhav Kumar Nepal to split from the UML to form the CPN (United Socialist) so that he could join the coalition government. K P Oli and the UML is also using his obstruction of the House to exact revenge on the coalition that ousted him.

Five-time prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba does not seem too perturbed. When asked by reporters this week how the government would function without a budget, he replied: “As it has functioned in the past.”

Parmeswar Dhungana of the Finance Ministry says the first option is to have Parliament when it meets Monday to ratify the ordinance to split parties, that will unblock the other ordinances. The second option is to pass an emergency payment bill, but even for that the political deadlock between the coalition and the UML in both chambers of the House must end. 

The third option is to suspend Parliament again and pass and renew all pending bills, amendments and the budget by ordinance.

This has happened before. Exactly ten years ago when then UML Finance Minister Surendra Pandey tried to present the budget, the current Maoist Finance Minister Janardan Sharma led a charge on the floor of the House and broke Pandey’s red-ribboned budget briefcase. After that, the UML coalition passed the budget by ordinance.

The other collateral damage of the deadlock in Parliament is the US-supported Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project to increase the capacity of Nepal’s electricity transmission lines and improve highways. The project is already signed but needs to be ratified by Parliament in 2019, but has also been a victim of extreme politics.

AED’s for Himalayan

Himalaya Airlines has this week introduced Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) onboard all its fleet of three A320s and one A319. 

An AED is a portable device that automatically diagnoses and treats the life-threatening sudden cardiac arrest. The Airlines has placed AEDs in its airplanes as well as its Head Office and ground handling office located at TIA (Airport Office). 

All cabin crew and ground personnel have been provided proper training in thorough usage of AEDs. 

Cathay Pacific’s 75 years

Cathay Pacific is celebrating 75 years of its founding, during which time it has grown from a regional airline to a global brand while being based in Hong Kong. 

To celebrate, the airline is releasing 1,000 special collector’s box sets as memorabilia. 

Cathay Pacific has seen exhilarating successes over the past incredible 75 years. We have also experienced unprecedented challenges, such as the global pandemic, which we are all still overcoming.” said CEO Augustus Tang. 

City Express–Terrapay

TerraPay, a global payments infrastructure company, announced its partnership with the City Express Money Transfer, to strengthen its network for inward remittances into Nepal.

Senders can deposit amounts in any bank account in Nepal either through direct account transfer or wallet deposit, and their beneficiaries can receive their payments through over 12,000 payout locations of City Express Money Transfer. 

TerraPay’s interoperability engine and 79 countries’ reach of global partners network will enable individuals residing overseas to send payments on a scalable, secure, transparent, and efficient platform, and that too, in real time.” saidChandra Tandan, Managing Director of City Express. 

The World 9/11 Made

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. On that day, 19 terrorists took control of four civilian aircraft, flew two into the towers of New York’s World Trade Center, struck the Pentagon with a third, and crashed the fourth in a Pennsylvania field after passengers physically prevented the terrorists from reaching their target, often thought to be the White House or another US government building in Washington, DC.

All the hijackers were from the Middle East, 15 from Saudi Arabia alone. All were trained in Afghanistan, and four at US flight schools, as part of an operation planned, organised, and carried out by al-Qaeda (the “base”), the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden. By the day’s end, 2,977 innocent men, women, and children had been killed, and more than 6,000 injured. Most were American, although citizens of more than a hundred other countries also lost their lives as well.

Many at the time feared that 9/11 had ushered in an era defined by global terrorism. And, to be sure, other al-Qaeda attacks followed, including the train bombings in Madrid in March 2004 and the attack on London’s transit system in July 2005. Moreover, terrorists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) killed 32 people at Brussels Airport in March 2016, and staged a series of smaller attacks (often using vehicles to mow down pedestrians). But neither the US nor any of its allies has experienced another attack on the scale of 9/11 – or one even close to it. It is therefore necessary to ask: Beyond the immediate costs, what difference did 9/11 make? How did history change, if at all, as a result?

Terrorism, unplugged

There are many explanations for why terrorists have not succeeded in executing additional major attacks. With the US invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda lost its sanctuary. Almost every government around the world has introduced new screening procedures that make it more difficult for would-be terrorists to gain access to airports and airplanes. Countries have dramatically increased their intelligence, police, and military capabilities devoted to minimising risks and countering threats. Countries have also increased their cooperation with one another; counterterrorism is a rare domain where governments that often disagree are willing and able to work together to a considerable degree.

There is also now broad agreement on what constitutes terrorism – the use of armed force by individuals and groups against civilians for political purposes – and a degree of support for the principle that governments should not distinguish between terrorists and those who give them sanctuary and support. Mostly gone are the days when individuals and groups who killed on behalf of their cause were romanticised as freedom fighters.

This is not to say that terrorism has not continued to claim tens of thousands of lives each and every year, which it most surely has. But almost all the attacks have taken place in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia as part of ongoing conflicts (mostly in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen) as opposed to an isolated 9/11-style attack against one of the major powers. Terrorism is increasingly localised and decentralised. It is also resilient: capturing or killing the head of a terrorist organisation does not necessarily spell its end. Al-Qaeda, for example, survived the killing of bin Laden by US special operations forces in Pakistan nearly a decade after the 9/11 attack.

It thus comes as no surprise that terrorism continues, with no end in sight. Nor can the possibility of a new 9/11 be ruled out, even though the US government has recently stated that the “most urgent terrorism threat” the country faces is domestic. As the Provisional Irish Republican Army put it after its failed effort to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984, “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” The danger is that the day will come when terrorists gain access to nuclear material or figure out how to manufacture and deliver a biological or chemical weapon, in which case terrorism could come to define the age. For now, though, it has not.

America, unleashed

Nonetheless, 9/11 marked a historical turning point, with a profound impact on US foreign policy in the two decades since. Although the attacks did not usher in an era of global terrorism, they did usher in the so-called Global War on Terrorism, which profoundly affected what the US did in the world, how the world came to regard the US, and how many Americans came to see their country’s foreign policy.

The saga begins in Afghanistan. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the US gave the Taliban, then in control of Afghanistan’s government, a choice: either hand over the al-Qaeda leaders who were living in their country and responsible for planning the 9/11 attack, or put their rule at risk. When the Taliban refused to hand over the al-Qaeda leaders, US intelligence and military personnel collaborated with a loose confederation of Afghan tribes known as the Northern Alliance in overthrowing the Taliban. The US helped assemble a successor government that took control of most of the country.

That control, though, was never complete or unchallenged. Many individuals loyal to the Taliban and al-Qaeda escaped to neighbouring Pakistan, where they gradually rebuilt their strength and resumed military operations against the government that had replaced them. The US for its part did not do enough to build an Afghan military, reduce corruption, or deny the Taliban a sanctuary in Pakistan. Instead, it increased its own presence and military operations in Afghanistan, essentially becoming a partner of the government in its civil war.

At its peak, the US effort in Afghanistan involved more than 100,000 of its soldiers. Over two decades, US operations cost more than $2 trillion, and more than 2,300 Americans, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans, lost their lives. The effort was at once both too much and not enough. While the US presence robbed the Afghan government of much of its legitimacy and generated opposition in the US, the Taliban proved to have more staying power than the US, which by 2020 had lost its will to continue a fight that promised only an open-ended stalemate.

The Global War on Terrorism also led the US to launch a war in Iraq. It is an open question whether President George W. Bush would have initiated the war had it not been for 9/11. Certainly, the attacks increased his inclination to signal to the world that the US was not, as President Richard Nixon put it during the Vietnam War, a “pitiful helpless giant.” It made some in the administration (particularly Vice President Dick Cheney) unwilling to take the risk that terrorists might gain control of weapons of mass destruction, which Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was widely thought (incorrectly, it turned out) to possess. Still others wanted to spread democracy to Iraq, and from there to the entire Middle East, on the assumption that this was not just possible, but also that it would make the region far less likely to produce terrorists and support terrorism.

The war in Iraq, launched in March 2003, did not go as intended or predicted by the Bush administration and the many in Congress (including then-Senator Joe Biden) and around the country who supported it. The US was unprepared for much of what was to come. Initial military victories ousted the government but soon gave way to widespread violent turmoil and civil war. Decisions to disband the Iraqi military and exclude from government jobs many of the Iraqis who had been associated with the previous regime exacerbated an already chaotic situation. More fundamentally, Iraq, like Afghanistan, demonstrated the limits of what military force could accomplish at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable timespan.

In the end, the US was forced to increase its military presence to nearly 170,000 troops to sustain the embattled successor government in Baghdad. A degree of stability was achieved, but at an enormous cost. The US spent at least as much there as in Afghanistan, but at a much higher human cost: more than 4,000 American soldiers killed, many times that number wounded, and soaring suicide rates among US troops (both in Iraq and Afghanistan). And this total excludes private contractors and Iraqi casualties, for which estimates vary widely but which certainly total several hundred thousand.

The war in Iraq also weakened the US in other ways. There was never any evidence that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and America’s reputation suffered further when its stated rationale for launching a war without UN support – to eliminate Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – turned out to have no basis in reality. Images of US soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners further tarnished the country’s reputation. Moreover, an Iraq at war with itself meant that Iran emerged as the most powerful country in the region (or one of two if Israel is included). Since the war, Iran has increased its sway over Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.

Iraq and Afghanistan also proved to be major strategic distractions. While the US was heavily involved in the Middle East and South Asia, regions that lacked any great-power presence or economic dynamism, the geopolitical balance moved against the US in both Europe and East Asia thanks to the emergence of a more aggressive Russia and a more capable and assertive China. The Global War on Terrorism did not and could not provide a compass for how US foreign policy should approach renewed great-power rivalry.

The world, unmoored

The wars fought in the wake of 9/11 also had significant domestic consequences for the US. They shook the confidence of a country that had emerged from the Cold War with a historically unprecedented preponderance of power and shattered the national unity that came to the surface in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Moreover, their costs and failures stimulated opposition to a continuing, large US global role, giving rise to a new tendency toward isolationism. Likewise, the push for war, together with the 2007-09 global financial crisis and its economic fallout, powerfully undermined Americans’ faith in elites, stimulating the rise of populist sentiment that, among other things, helped pave the way for the presidency of Donald Trump. Today’s US is more divided than ever at home and increasingly disinclined to carry out the sort of active foreign policy that has been its hallmark since World War II’s end, and which has, on balance, greatly benefited Americans and many others.

In hindsight, we can now see that 9/11 was a harbinger of what was to come: less the globalisation of terrorism than the terrors of globalisation. The attacks conveyed the message that distance and borders count for little in a global age. Little stays local for long, whether terrorists born in the Middle East and trained in Afghanistan, or the effects of the global financial crisis that had its origins in American financial mismanagement. We are all living with a pandemic virus that has killed millions since emerging in central China in December 2019. The fires, droughtsfloods,  storms, and heat ravaging much of the world are the consequence of climate change, itself the cumulative effect of human activity that has concentrated unsustainable amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The era triggered by events in Afghanistan has now come full circle, marking its 20th anniversary with events in Afghanistan. Twenty years ago, the Taliban were quickly ousted from power; in recent weeks they have regained power just as quickly. It is too soon to know whether the Taliban will revert to their old ways, becoming once again enablers of terrorism, and whether terrorists everywhere will get a boost from their victory over the US and its allies. What we do know, however, is that terrorism will remain a feature of our world. It will not define the future, but it will remain a visible aspect of the globalisation that already has.

Read Also:

“Bring us home”, says Nepali in Kabul, Nepali Times

Who will rescue Nepalis from Afghanistan? Nepali Times

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author, most recently, of The World: A Brief Introduction (Penguin Press, 2020)