Preparing for a ‘No Normal’
When the Nepal government clamped a lockdown after only the second case was detected in a student travelling back from France last year, everyone thought it would be for a week or two at most. We have passed the one year mark, and now another new year. And the virus is still with us.
In fact, epidemiologists are coming to the consensus that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is never really going to go away. It is going to merrily mutate and adapt to every new vaccine, then exploit human behaviour and global mobility to keep spreading through many variants.
In Nepal, we have been worriedly watching the second wave batter neighbouring India. We should have been more prepared for that tidal wave to arrive on our shores—it was inevitable that with the open southern border we are seeing a repeat of 2020 as Nepali workers return from India for the new year.
They started streaming back from Maharastra, Karnataka and other states last month, fearing another lockdown. This has in the past week swelled into a human flashflood as Nepalis flee India’s second surge and bring it home.
It is impossible to conduct antibody tests on every returnee, but a sample result shows that up to 15% were, or are, carrying the virus. It is most likely the more virulent UK strain that infects younger people.
The virus is now in a race against the vaccine. India has already vaccinated 100 million people and has stopped exporting its Covishield and Covaxin, and Nepal will now have to wait until vaccine producers give shots to their own populations. And many forget that the jab does not stop infections, it may just prevent serious illness.
This coronavirus is smart, it has made sure the people it infects are well enough to be up and about. Asymptomatic carriers, therefore, were spreading the virus. But the new strains that are causing havoc in Brazil, Europe, India, and now possibly Nepal, are not just more contagious but also more deadly—and they are leading to fatalities among the young and those without co-morbidities.
The number of cases in Nepal was nearly 500 on Monday, with the positivity rate shooting up from 4% to 10%. After three months of falling fatalities, there were 13 deaths reported in the past 24 hours. On Tuesday, the figures maintained with 460 infections, with 5 people dead.
Scientists now predict that a more lethal and more transmissible virus means that globally we are in for a protracted series of 'waves'. We might as well get used to frequent local lockdowns, temporary restrictions, curfews, sporadic stoppage of public transport and flights, closures of restaurants and bars. We are not heading for a ‘New Normal, we are in a ‘No Normal’.
The virus fire has already spread from India to Nepal, but just like the wildfires that have engulfed Nepal in smoke for a month now, the government appears to have taken a come-what-may attitude. It does not have the stomach to order another lockdown for fear of its economic impact, there is no contact tracing anymore—just cosmetic antibody tests and perfunctory isolation for positives.
Public health specialists we spoke to for this editorial say that just as in India, there are several reasons for this new outbreak: weariness about health protocols, complacency because of vaccines, and the ‘immune escape’ due to new variants.
What is happening in Nepal now is a re-enactment of last year. The ‘health desk’ at the border is a joke, the Tarai districts of Banke, Parsa, and Kanchanpur have become hotspots once more, and hospitals are filling up again. The virus has already spread to the mountains as the carriers head home. We never learnt our lessons from 2020.
This crisis has been a perfect storm of multiple disasters. Covid-19 emerged because of human-induced ecological damage, and the virus crossed from bats and pangolins to humans. The destruction of nature and forests have intensified the climate crisis, which in turn has lead to an unprecedented drought that sparked the worst wildfires in living memory along the Himalayan foothills this year.
The air quality across the region has been in the hazardous zone for weeks as the smoke added to the smog. Since the coronavirus affects the respiratory system, air pollution has increased the risk to Covid-19 patients. As we go into the second year of this crisis, it is clear that human health is intricately linked to the natural world, and vice versa. We ignore that at our own peril.