Ganesh Nepali worked as a porter in India’s Himachal Pradesh, and was among the tens of thousands of Nepalis who had to return because of the lack of work. Like for many of them, it has been a bittersweet homecoming.
He spent several days travelling from the pilgrimage town of Joshimath in India to get to Mahednranagar on the Nepal border. After being stuck there, it took him another three days to reach Jumla. For much of the time on the road, he had to go without food.
Even if the returning workers from India had money, and even if they could find a restaurant that was open, the owners refused to serve migrant workers.
As the mass misery of returnees shifts from the crowded quarantine centres on the border to their home districts up in the mountains, people like Ganesh Nepali struggle not just with the hardships, the fear of coronavirus, but also stigma in their own communities.
Ganesh finally reached his village in Jumla on 31 May, but his ordeal did not end there. Instead of a warm welcome from relatives and neighbours, he was met with confusion, conflict and ostracisation.
Villagers protested against five newly set up integrated quarantine centers in Jumla meant to hold migrant workers from the entire district. But the returnees were abandoned at the bus park, and after hours of anticipation and without any information or instructions, Ganesh and others just went home.
The next morning, he woke up to a commotion outside his house. The entire neighbourhood was there to protest his presence. “I made a mistake of going back to my family, but my neighbours tortured me with a torrent of abuse,” he recalled. “Where could I go when no one was telling me where to go? We were all ready to stay in the quarantine, but there was no one to take us there.”
Despite the central government’s commitment to manage migrant workers smoothly, and set aside a budget to all provinces and districts to manage their safe return it is, as always, the most vulnerable that fall through the cracks in the system. Volunteer groups have tried to bridge the gap in service delivery, but face their own problems.
Soraj Shahi of the Karnali Sports Club which is among the groups helping the re-integration of returnees says one of the most difficult tasks is to convince local people about safety measures and individual precautions in welcoming returnees home.
Ganesh Nepali and his family, who are also in quarantine, were finally provided with necessary facilities by the ward committee. But Ganesh himself feels guilty that he might have spread the virus to his family members.
Jumla’s Chandannath Municpality is one of two in Nepal with a woman mayor, Kantika Sejwal. She says the confusion is due to a turf battle between municipalities and the provincial government.
The provinces wanted integrated quarantines because there were logistical benefits in clustering them, while the municipalities were prepared to set them up at a ward or community level.
What they failed to understand was the emotional and social consequences related to having crowded centres with returnees from many rural municipalities in one place, Sejwal said in a phone interview.
She added: “At a demanding time like this, it would have been easier if we could reassure people about the infection, and since everyone was trying to keep their communities free of contamination, there was panic.”
Mona Aditya of the Oda Foundation, one of the other groups helping migrant workers, says her organisation tried to address the most basic need of returnees for proper food.
“Nobody wanted to let them in, everyone was afraid of the disease spreading, and the most urgent need was for a hot meal,” she added.
Volunteers have stepped in to feed returnees and their families in quarantines all across the Karnali, after the local government refused them entry at the provincial border until they could show a negative test results. Up to 5,000 people every day were stopped in Surkhet, and they were camped earlier this month by the highway, tired, hungry and thirsty.
Volunteer groups like Royal Collaborative, Nirsarga Hospital, and social activists served 14,000 hot meals to returning migrants, while Oda foundation and the Karnali Foundation have provided relief bags to over a thousand returnees in just one week along the checkpoints of Karnali Province.
Another campaign called ‘Nyaano Swaagat’ (warm welcome) strives to spread a message of hope and support to returnees and urges their communities to accept them back for a dignified return. With the backlog in test results, many desperate returnees are stuck in quarantine beyond the usual two weeks, and have sometimes clashed with police.
Numerous campaigns on social media have spread the message with hashtags like #WelcomebackhomeNepal and #nyaanoswaagat with influencers and celebrities joining in to share. The campaigns have clocked tens of thousands of engagements on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
As the returnees finally get home, and the news media carries stories of more COVID-19 positive cases in quarantine centres, the volunteer groups are now not just ensuring food and shelter, but also educating the public about how they can safely welcome fellow-Nepalis back home to Nepal.