The low coronavirus case load in Nepal in March and April was largely due to the country being relatively isolated. The lockdown and ban on flights did help slow the spread of the virus.
But as returning Nepali workers were stopped at the border, over-crowded makeshift quarantine centres became incubators for the disease. As the floodgates are finally opened, many desperate and hungry people are rushing home without proper testing, some taking the infection with them.
Thousands of workers who trudged across India for days, and were blocked at the Nepal border for weeks have now been stopped by Karnali Province. Camped by the road on the outskirts of Surkhet are pregnant mothers, children and families without food and water.
3 Nepali mothers still die daily at childbirth, Marty Logan
Inevitably, Nepal is no longer just dealing with imported cases, but with community spreading. And what started out as a health crisis has turned into an economic disaster and a humanitarian emergency. Returnees stopped at the Indian border till two weeks ago, are now being stopped at the provincial boundaries.
The lockdown is now causing human suffering and hardship on a far greater scale than the disease it was supposed to stop. It exposes the government’s complacency and squandering the lead time provided by the lockdown to prepare for the exodus.
The Finance Minister’s budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year on Friday will reflect the new priorities for Nepal — spreading the social safety net so that the jobless are taken care of, money is allocated for detection, quarantine, isolation, treatment of the population during what is sure to be a prolonged pandemic, on agriculture, and a stimulus package to kickstart businesses.
3rd month of lockdown, Sonia Awale
However, as shown by the government’s Policies and Programs formally read to Parliament by President Bidya Devi Bhandari on 15 May and the Appropriations Bill, the government has done little more than cut and paste from previous budgets. These are extraordinary times, and it needs extraordinary determination to think outside the box.
The country saw the biggest single day increase in coronavirus on Tuesday with 90 new cases, bringing the total to 772. This was expected, and some projections show that total cases will climb to 5,000 in the coming weeks as testing picks up. The high-level Coronavirus Control and Management Committee is mulling a relaxation of restrictions, but in all likelihood the government will take the easy way out and extend the sweeping lockdown.
The only positive side effect of the lockdown so far has been that monitoring stations across Kathmandu Valley have reported much lower levels of harmful air pollution in the past two months. NASA remote sensing data shows a dramatic decline in toxic nitrous oxides over northern India, primarily due to the drop in vehicular traffic.
Nepal lockdown proves air quality can improve, Sonia Awale
The reduction in crossborder pollution brought down NOx over Nepal by 20% during the lockdown, and the concentration of the toxic gases dropped by 50% in Kathmandu Valley. In the first weeks of the lockdown, the sale of petrol and diesel was down to 5% of normal levels in Kathmandu.
Hospitals saw a dramatic decline in people suffering from COPD and asthma.
Alas, this positive outcome did not happen because of a planned transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but was forced on us by a COVID-19 lockdown. It is also temporary, and there is every indication that the government thinks a return to normal means going back to the old way of doing things.
Thinking out of the box to rescue Nepal, Prem Jung Thapa
Nepal spent Rs215 billion last year on importing petroleum products, far greater than what is earned from all the country’s exports put together. In a pre-budget statement, the Climate Action Network South Asia said Nepal’s needs to reduce petroleum import and have a pro-active policy to encourage the use of its surplus hydro-electricity to switch to battery-operated vehicles. It recommends setting up a Renewable Energy Fund to create electric-powered public transport systems.
Reducing the import of petroleum products by only 10% will result in a national saving worth Rs21 billion annually, which can then be invested to build infrastructure for cleaner options. But in the short term as we come out of lockdown, Kathmandu can make a start on pedestrianising core city areas, promoting bicycle lanes, and encouraging public transport with precautions keeping physical distance and wearing masks.
This will revive the economy while we wait for agriculture and tourism to pick up, prevent the virus from spreading, and keep people healthy by reducing air pollution.