Nepal’s one week lockdown is supposed to go on till 31 March, but that appears to be an attempt by the government to convey the bad news to the public in small doses. It is likely to be extended at least till the Nepali New Year on 13 April, to match the duration of the Indian curfew.
Such a prolonged shutdown forces us to look beyond the present need for containment to plan for the crises that are sure to manifest themselves in the near future — food shortages, economic hardship, social unrest and political instability. The virus and its response have exposed and exacerbated existing socio-economic inequities in Nepali society, exclusion and injustice.
A post this week by an Indian doctor about the class dimension of physical distancing is as applicable to Nepal: ‘Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. Hand sanitisers are a privilege. It means you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. A disease spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor.’
As has been underlined by Nepal’s civil society, a caring government will not just lock down the whole country to defeat the virus, but also lay down a social safety net for those most affected by the economic standstill Businesses and factories may need a stimulus package so jobs are not lost, but it is those who depend on day-to-day earnings who need urgent assistance.
Developing countries are not known for efficient service delivery and good governance at the best of times. But this crisis demands that they step up to the challenge of quickly finding a mechanism to rescue the most vulnerable with cash grants if necessary.
Even Europe and North America have been caught unprepared to deal with the scope and spread of this pandemic. It is now the urban poor in the Global South where new COVID-19 infection clusters will hit hardest, exposing pre-existing disparities in access to medical care and food.
The global nature of this pandemic has hit Nepal’s economy hard because of our overwhelming reliance on foreign worker remittances and tourism. Many Nepali workers are stranded in Malaysia, the Gulf, or in Indian cities, and need to be rescued, Citizens cannot be prevented from entering their own country.
With the curfew likely to be extended by two more weeks at least, the High-level Task Force must now turn its attention to ensuring adequate supply of food and other essentials. Kathmandu cannot micromanage all ground level problems, local governments must be given the authority and the resources to act. Medical care workers need personal protective equipment (PPE), we need more ventilators and isolation wards so that they do not have to risk their lives while saving the lives of the sick.
It is just four days into the curfew, and for a lot of people it is finally sinking in that the world as we knew it has been turned upside down. One-third of the world’s population is in lockdown, the global economy is shattered, and even though the virus afflicts rich and poor alike, it is the poorest in the poor countries who are most vulnerable to the economic aftershocks of the pandemic.
It feels like a nightmare, and it is hard to remember the pre-Corona days when all we had to worry about was climate change. Maybe one day when this virus is vanquished, there will be a new way of thinking and living. Let us hope that we mitigate the cause of the climate emergency with the same global resolve as we did this crisis. The projected number of deaths just from heat stress due to global heating in the next decades is going to run into tens of millions. The COVID-19 lockdowns confine people to their homes, but as sea levels rise many will not have homes. And the climate crisis itself will unleash new kinds of pestilence.
And just like with the climate, there are countries which are still in denial about the pandemic, or leaders who have acted too late and let their citizens pay the price with their lives. A teleconference of G-7 foreign ministers was deadlocked on Wednesday over the United States passing all the blame of the pandemic on China.
Yet, we have also seen unprecedented international resolve. The World Health Organisation has coordinated national responses so that most countries are in shutdown at least till mid-April. It now needs to pay special attention to poorer countries, and the poorest who live in them.