The psychology of terror, irrationality of panic, and fear of diseases without cure are not new. What is new this time is mobile communication which allows panic about the virus to go viral.
In Nepal, too, the media was obsessed with the plight of 182 students trapped in Hubei province. The issue was politicised by those opposed to Prime Minister Oli’s government – both within his NCP and without. Media gave prominence to tearful parents, highlighted a letter to the prime minister about his callousness and disregard. Under pressure already for non-performance, the government found the evacuation of the students to a quarantine camp in Bhaktapur a convenient way to show-case action.
If only the government reacted with similar efficiency to other, much more serious, national emergencies like Nepal’s unacceptably high maternal mortality rate. Although there has been a steep drop in the number of women who die in childbirth from 900 per 100,000 in 1990 to 239 today, Nepal has missed the target of reducing that number to 125 this year. It does not look like we will hit the SDG goal of 75 by 2030, either.
More than 1,200 women die in child birth every year in Nepal, that is three every day. Most of these are easily preventable either by ensuring proper nutrition, enforcing the ban on child marriage, ensuring access to ultrasound machines to detect complications in time, and encouraging institutional delivery.
As Buddha Basnyat of the Patan Academy of Health Sciences (PAHS) comments, it is only political will that is stopping Nepal from adopting the game-changer drug Tranexamic acid (TXA) in the treatment of post-partum haemorrhage, (PPH) the most common cause of maternal death. There is a huge 44% unmet need for contraceptives, which is leading to unwanted pregnancies and preventing a further drop in Nepal’s total fertility rate.
Tuberculosis kills 6,000 people in Nepal every year, and every other Nepali is a carrier of the bacillus, which means half the population should actually be quarantined. Yet the health system is supremely unconcerned, and the public is not aware of the risk.
There were 2,736 fatalities in road traffic accidents in Nepal last year. Yet, even though the coronavirus has not killed anyone and there has been only one suspected case, Nepalis are hoarding supplies of masks and hand sanitisers. Meanwhile, vehicles continued to be driven recklessly over precarious roads. Where is the outrage?
Air pollution in Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan and the Tarai is so bad that it is making many people die prematurely, reducing our lifespans by 3.5 years. Where is the peoples’ anger at having their lives cut short? It is ironic that residents of Kharipati are more worried about Nepali students from Wuhan being quarantined in their neighbourhood, than about the toxic fumes emitted by dozens of brick kilns nearby.
To be sure, we cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to new epidemics like Covid-19. However, it is the neglect of easily preventable diseases that kills more people in Nepal — most often poor people in rural communities. We need a robust health system that prioritises primary health care, trains medical professionals, and builds a well-equipped infrastructure to handle future epidemics.
But that does not make it into the news.