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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.

Chandragiri Hills

Chandragiri Hills has announced a 50% festival discount for rides on Chandragiri cable car as well as a Rs6,500 breakfast and deluxe room package for a couple at Chandragiri Hills Resort. The offer is valid until November 30.

Chandragiri Hills Limited has been promoting the region as a historically, culturally and naturally significant tourist destination. Attractions at Chandragiri include the Bhaleswar Mahadev Temple, View Tower, Children’s park, seminar hall and the Chandragiri Hills Resort.

Nepal has decided to live with Covid-19

Nepal has decided to live with coronavirus adhering to safety measures until the vaccine is developed. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

Nepal confirmed its first Covid-19 case in a student who had returned from Wuhan in January. For two months nothing happened, but after the second case was detected in a student returning from Paris, the government decided to shut the country down on 24 March

Six months down the line, some experts say the lockdown was started too early and without a strategy for testing, tracing and quarantine. Indeed, the fact that after lying dormant for the first three months, the number of confirmed cases and fatalities have zoomed up.

Most of the increase happened after 21 July, when the government made the mistake of declaring “lockdown lifted” just as bordering states in India were seeing peaks. Since then, the virus spread like wildfire through the Tarai town, and engulfed Kathmandu Valley.

On Wednesday, there were 1072 cases, of which 637 were in Kathmandu Valley. There were 7 more fatalities on 23 September, 2 of them in Kathmandu, bringing the nationwide total to 436. Unlike the first four months of the lockdown, the number of symptomatic cases and those needing ICU have also gone up, meaning younger people are spreading it to family members and in the community. 

Since the first Nepali Covid-19 case declared in January, followed by the government’s decision to repatriate 175 students from Hubei, China on 16 February, it looked like the Nepal government had things under control.

Despite the horror stories in February from China and Italy, Nepal was going ahead with its Visit Nepal 2020 campaign. Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai even went to Australia in the middle of bushfire season there to drum up business, declaring Nepal “coronavirus free” country.

3rd month of lockdown, Sonia Awale

However, as cases spiraled in China and later India, Nepal closed all mountaineering expeditions and trekking on March 13. Tourists hurried back to Kathmandu to try to get the last flights back. 

On 22 March, Prime Minister K P Oli declared a semi-lockdown, sealed Nepal’s international borders, and grounded domestic flights. The following day, as the second Nepali tested positive, a complete lockdown was announced initially for a week. It kept being extended multiple times for the next months.  

Empty Kathmandu roads during the lockdown. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

As neighbouring India also declared a lockdown, leaving hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the lurch, Nepal was ill-prepared for the flood of returnees. At first it did not allow the workers in and tens of thousands were stranded for weeks at the border. Desperate, some even swam across the Mahakali River to get home.

Trumpism in Nepal’s Covid-19 response, Sushil Koirala and Ben Ayers

There was a surge of cases among returnees, and among men at a mosque in Udayapur, Morang and Banke who had returned from a congregation in Delhi. 

But the government reacted swiftly with sealing off districts and contact tracing. 

Nepalis at the border were finally allowed to enter Nepal, but they were kept in poorly equipped quarantine centres, which themselves became incubators for the virus. Later, many infected people took the virus to their mountain districts.

The government also bungled by first getting unreliable RDT test kits, which though quick gave a lot of false negative results. After kickbacks and corruption was exposed in the media, the Covid-19 Crisis Management Committee finally switched to RT PCR, but there were not enough reagents and kits for the kind of mass testing that was required.

Unreliable RDT test. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

The CCMC is chaired by Defense Minister Ishwar Pokhrel and he was directly implicated in awarding the RDT kit import contract to Omni Group at inflated prices. Pokhrel then handed over the business to Nepal Army, but there were reports that Omni simply put up a front company to import from the same Chinese company that Omni dealt with.  

Who’s in charge in Nepal?, Alisha Sijapati

As government revenue from taxes plummeted, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada announced a relaxation of the first lockdown on 7 May, partly opening businesses. On 28 May, he unveiled the Covid-19 budget of Rs14.74 trillion, setting aside Rs6 billion to manage the pandemic.

While, Prime Minister Oli continued to argue for extending the lockdown, Khatiwada announced on 21 July that the lockdown was “lifted”, although  there were still restrictions. This resulted in tens of thousands of Nepalis and Indians to stream back just as India was seeing a peak.  

However, by 18 August as the daily case load started to exceed 1,000, local  governments prohibitory orders on 18 August in Kathmandu and 44 districts as cases spiked. But given that impact on the economy, rise in joblessness and the risk of an economic meltdown, the government accepted defeat and decided to open up – telling the people they had to take precautions and learn to live with the virus. 

24 March-24 August, Alisha Sijapati

Limited regular international flights were allowed from 1 September, and domestic flights resumed from 21 September. Businesses, restaurants and public transport were also allowed with some restrictions. All this while the daily number of new cases and deaths in Kathmandu continue to break records every day. 

Domestic terminal reopens for operation after being grounded for six months. Photo: BIKRAM RAI

Public health experts say that the government’s strategy from Day One was that it did not have a strategy. Policies were reactive and ad hoc, locking down and opening up were wrongly timed.  In the end, the government realised that saving the economy was more important because jobless and hungry people would die in greater number than from the disease.

As the northern hemisphere prepares for a second surge with the winter flu season, Nepal is once more ill-prepared. Hospitals in Kathmandu are already full, and there are not enough ICU beds and ventilators.  The only silver lining is that even as the numbers in Kathmandu Valley continue to surge, the Tarai towns appear to have peaked.

Read also:

Youth-led feeding campaign spreads across Nepal, Nunuta Rai

Nepali workers stuck in no man’s land, Nepali Times

Ncell

Ncell has launched two data packs under its umbrella campaign ‘Plus’, which will enable 4G customers to choose between a one-day or 30 day pack for nonstop access to TikTok and Facebook. The one day pack is available to customers at Rs25 while the 30-day pack is available at Rs360. Customers who choose to activate the 30-day pack will get 6GB bonus data to browse the web.

Sanima online credit card

Sanima Bank has launched its online credit card services, per which customers can fill up an application form through the bank’s website. Customers will be informed about the approval status of their credit card through email or phone, and will get a credit limit on their cards for a period of time as well as discounts from various partner merchants of Sanima Bank.

“We better take this virus seriously”

Photo: VIJAY LAMA

I am a Captain with Nepal Airlines, and had been feeling unusually fatigued in the cockpit during recent trips. After a repatriation flight from Riyadh two weeks ago, I was assigned to fly out Nepal Army peacekeeping troops stationed in South Sudan.

I was in the cockpit for only half the 24 hour roundtrip to Juba, but on return to Kathmandu my skin started feeling like it was being poked with needles. I had a headache, and soon developed a fever.

I gradually lost my sense of taste and smell of food, and used to break out into sweat. I quarantined myself at Soaltee Hotel and got a PCR test. Since it came back positive, and being symptomatic, I was admitted into Star Hospital.

My condition got worse. The fever stayed at 102, and I had severe head and joint aches. I tossed and turned in bed, and could not sleep, sometimes I was delirious. Nurses and physicians in masks, visors and PPE would ask me muffled questions, but I could not see their faces, and in my blurred vision, they looked like automatons.

I am certain that I am alive now, and can speak these words, because of these dedicated healthcare workers. As airline crew during the pandemic, we considered ourselves frontline professionals as we carried out ferry flights to rescue stranded Nepalis abroad. But it is the medical personnel at our hospitals who are the true frontline heroes doing battle to save lives at great personal risk.

They work 12 hour shifts at a stretch in full PPEs, they cannot even take a toilet break. They cannot go home to families, and if they live in rented flats, they face stigmatisation from landlords and neighbours. Many are underpaid and over-worked, do not have insurance, some even had their salaries cut as hospitals struggle to survive. I salute their dedication.

After coming out of the dark corridor of this disease, I beseech everyone to take this virus seriously. I only survived because I got the very best care available in Nepal, I had access to the medicines, was in a strong physical and mental state, and I could afford the cost of treatment.

Many of us may not be as lucky, which means we have to take even more care – especially if we have underlying conditions, are senior citizens, or have elderly relatives at home. And we have to take extra precautions as we go into the winter flu season, and lockdown restrictions are relaxed further. For example, we have to strictly enforce the PCR negative rule for airline passengers.

Just because you are young, bored at home, or miss your friends, please do not let your guard down. If you get sick, you will not just be jeopardising your own health. You never know where you can pick up this airborne virus. Always wear masks when outside the home, avoid crowded places, maintain a safe distance, and wash hands.

Even when a vaccine is available next year, it is not a 100% guarantee, and you will need to maintain these precautions.

The most distressing thing about Covid-19 is that you are all alone in your hospital. You cannot see your family, the health care workers do not have faces, and it can really bring your spirit down. So, you have to maintain a positive mental attitude, convince yourself that you will beat this virus.

You have to keep your brain very active, not worry too much, and make plans for the future. You cannot let the virus win, and keeping yourself mentally alert is as important as maintaining physical strength. After all, it is the mind that enhances your immune system.

Even with all my crew training, will power and good physical state, I do not think I would have survived without the hospital treatment I got. Remdesivir boosted my body’s capacity to fight back, as did some of the other drugs.

But my advice is not to rely on turmeric, or some of the other traditional remedies, they are not a cure. I am now waiting for my final PCR test, and if it is negative I hope to go home, and after regaining my strength will be back in the cockpit soon.

The SARS-CoV-2 is a formidable enemy. Do not take it lightly. Do not think you are invincible. It is not a flu. It is a killer, and it will take you down to its dark depths, and you have to fight your way back up to the light.

Vijay Lama is a senior Airbus330 captain with Nepal Airlines, and dictated this comment from his hospital bed on Wednesday morning.

The ‘f’ word

Illustration: BHANU BHATTARAI

On 19 September, Nepal marked Constitution Day. It was on this day five years ago that the Constitution was hurriedly promulgated by a government facing severe criticism for being slow to respond to the deadly earthquakes earlier in 2015.

There was dissatisfaction with the draft Constitution in parts of the Tarai, but the coalition government of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala fast-tracked the statute despite India’s articulation of Madhesi concerns. The result was a blockade that lasted five months and devastated Nepal’s economy.

Today, the economy has been wrecked by an even bigger crisis. As masked and physically distanced dignitaries gathered last Saturday at the Tundikhel parade ground, Nepal Army helicopters showered rose petals on them – while at the adjacent Khula Manch, 600 out-of-work and hungry people were being fed, as they have been for five months, by youth volunteers doing the job of the government.

There could not have been a greater irony. After all, the Khula Manch was where pro-democracy protesters gathered in 1990 and again in 2006 in defiance of absolutist monarchies.

Fast forward five years, and what we have is a farce. Despite the Constitution having a progressive preamble, provisions for affirmative action, a commitment to abolish structural discrimination and protect social, economic and political rights, we have actually regressed.

The Constitution took one step forward, but the state has taken two steps back – especially after the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) government came to power. Not only are issues like transitional justice, impunity, freedom of expression, tolerance of dissent, independence of the judiciary flouted, but there is a pandemic of corruption and incompetent governance. 

The public was increasingly fed up with the government’s poor performance even before the pandemic, but in the past six months has shown that the crisis is way beyond its capacity to handle so the welfare of the country’s most vulnerable is protected.  

Through the Constitution-drafting process since 2008, we have often argued in this space against declaring Nepal a ‘federal’ state. Whatever it is called, genuine decentralisation and workable political devolution was more important for development and service delivery – whether it was during the Panchayat, the post-1990 era, or in the transition period after the war.

Indeed, it was after the decentralisation and local self-governance acts went into effect in Nepal in the 1990s that development got a boost. Giving communities a stake in decision-making led to direct and dramatic improvements in living standards in many districts. Indeed, most things that have worked well in Nepal in the past three decades have the word ‘community’ attached to it.     

But ‘federalism’ became synonymous with ‘peace’ because that was why the war was waged, and later it was the price to be paid to meet demands for regional and ethnic autonomy. Political parties haggled for nearly a decade about how many federal provinces there should be, which way they should be demarcated, and what to name them, (some still have numbers). As it turned out, the boundaries of post-2017 ‘provinces’ roughly resemble the Panchayat-era anchal, and Bagmati, Karnali and Gandaki  evern carry the same river names. 

The ‘f’ word became politically correct and fashionable. But the past five years have shown that no matter what you call it, power in Nepal is as Kathmandu-centric as ever. In fact, there was probably more genuine devolution in the 1990s than now under federalism.

We should have known. Communists through modern history (Soviet Union, China under Mao) have used federalism as a façade to continue with their ideology of ‘democratic centralism’. It is no wonder, then, that today’s NCP government has more power than any other government since the days of the absolute monarchy, and it is all centralised not just in Singha Darbar but inside one room in Baluwatar.

The other obstacle to decentralisation under federalism is that except Province 2, all the others are governed by the NCP after 2017. Provincial leaders therefore have more allegiance to the party headquarters from where all power emanates.

As our report on Covid-19 shows, the way Province 2 and Tarai municipalities have handled testing and contact tracing during the pandemic despite the stranglehold of the federal government, is a lesson for Kathmandu. Most other places, the Home Ministry through CDOs and the Ministry of Health through provincial hospitals are still directing response – with often disastrous results.

Now that we are stuck with a federal state, let us try to make the best of it by practicing what it really means: true devolution of political decision-making, effective service delivery and resource distribution to local governments.

Ganga Maya’s endless road to justice

On the sixth death anniversary of Nanda Prasad Adhikari who was on a hunger strike demanding justice for his murdered son, his widow Ganga Maya has once more urged the government to prosecute the perpetrators.

From her bed in the National Trauma Centre, where she was shifted after Bir Hospital was turned into an exclusive Covid-19 hospital, Ganga Maya has appealed to Nepal’s human rights groups and the international community to support her struggle for truth and justice.

Ganga Maya and her husband started their hunger strike nine years ago, did not have solid food and were fed intravenously in hospital. She has continued with the struggle even after her husband died on the 334th day of his fast unto death.

His yet-to-be-cremated body in Box No 4 inside the morgue at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu is a stark reminder of Nepal’s failed transitional justice process.

The couple’s son Krishna Prasad Adhikari was 17 when he was killed on 4 June, 2004 when he went to visit his mother’s family just after finishing his SLC exam in Gorkha. A group of Maoists caught and tortured and killed him by stuffing him inside a sack and dragging him behind a motorcycle. They accused him of being a spy.

His parents Nanda Prasad and Ganga Maya came to Kathmandu to protest when Baburam Bhattarai was prime minister in 2012. Police got them certified as ‘mad’ and dumped them in Gorkha.

The couple lodged a complaint at the Chitwan District Police Office against Chhabilal Poudel, Januka Poudel, Meghnath Poudel, Bishnu Tiwari, Subhadra Tiwari, Sita Adhikari, Kali Prasad Adhikari, Himal Adhikari, Ram Prasad Adhikari, Bhimsen Poudel and Parashuram Poudel. But when no action was taken, they returned to Kathmandu and started a hunger strike outside Bir Hospital on 12 August 2013.

On 3 September of the same year, the Supreme Court ordered the couple to be force-fed and to release the details of the investigation into the complaint. On 6 September, police arrested one of the accused, Ram Prasad Adhikari, but released him 22 days later.

On 13 April 2014, Chhabilal Poudel and 13 others were charged with the murder of Krishna Prasad. However, four days later the Chitwan District Court ordered the release of Chhabilal on bail. On 19 June 2015, the then appellate court of Hetauda upheld the decision of the district court.

After her husband’s death, Ganga Maya continued her hunger strike alone. On the 359th day, the government led by the then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala made a five-point commitment: to take the accused to court, take action even if accused were out of the country, pay for Ganga Maya’s family’s lifelong treatment and living expenses, provide security to Ganga Maya and her eldest son Nur Prasad and make necessary arrangements for Nanda Prasad’s funeral.

After the Hetauda Court upheld the Chitwan District Court’s decision to release the defendants on bail, Ganga Maya filed an appeal against it in the Supreme Court on 28 June 2015. On 21 December of the same year, the Supreme Court ordered the judicial custody of Chhabilal Poudel.

But when Chhabilal Poudel wasn’t arrested, Ganga Maya went on a hunger strike in 2018 and on the 48th day, on 9 July 2018, Chhabilal was forced to surrender before the Supreme Court, and was sent to prison for trial.

The Chitwan District Court acquitted all the accused except Rudra Acharya on 9 September. On 4 September 2019, Ganga Maya appealed against the district’s decision in the Hetauda Bench of the Patan High Court, and on 11 November, the Hetauda Bench ordered the defendants to appear. However, no further hearing has been held since then.

Virtual Education Symposium 2020

The British Council Nepal is hosting its 4th Virtual Education Symposium from  23 to 27 September and will feature presentations, debates and discussions around this year’s theme School Leadership, its principles and practices in Nepal and other countries. The Symposium will bring together policymakers, planners, administrators, teachers, researchers, NGOs, and private sector and development partners. 

Said Shahida MacDougall, Country Director of British Council Nepal: “This symposium will offer some of the best examples and experiences for the school leaders and policy makers in Nepal to learn from and aims to improve the quality of education, and, ultimately, help young people to reach their full potential in life and contribute to the successes and prosperity of Nepal.” 

The Council is also set to launch a publication titled ‘Developing successful learning in Nepal: Insights on curriculum, teaching methods and school leadership’, which will be available for download on the British Council website after the launch.

DFSK Dasain discount

Kuju Nepal, the official distributor of the DFSK Glory 560 and Glory 580 SUV in Nepal, has launched a scheme that offers customers a discount on the two premium SUVs during this festival season along with a cash discount of up to Rs400,000.

Customers unable to pay the full amount can put in a payment of Rs1 million on the Glory 560 and Glory 580, while the company will pay 6-month worth of instalment fees for those customers who are able to make a 50% down payment on the SUVs.

Kuju Nepal will also pay Rs100,000 worth road tax of customers who exchange their old vehicle for the new SUVs, the company said in a press statement on Monday.

Nabil Fone Loan

Nabil Bank has launched its Nabil Fone Loan digital lending service which will provide contactless, pre-approved collateral free micro-loans to customers through the bank’s mobile banking platform as well as by use of a Virtual Credit Card. Eligible customers can apply for a virtual credit card loan of up to Rs100,000 through mobile banking. Nabil Bank has partnered with F1 Soft International for the technological support.