Attempts to control the border, and quarantine the returnees have proven largely unsuccessful. This is in part because of the lack of resources and/or incompetence of the local authorities (given the very limited federalisation of funds and powers allocated to the new states) and in part because the border between India and Nepal is porous.
The virus therefore was carried to many different parts of the country, evading effective control at an early stage and ‘seeding’ a number of local outbreaks. The limited capacity of public facilities at the local level to respond effectively to such outbreaks, except by lockdown, has delayed or even prevented proper treatment of those infected and becoming seriously ill. It has also adversely affected local economies, and thus the national economy.
Nepal’s economy has, in any case, but hard hit by the restrictions on international and domestic travel and transport, and by relatively unselective and arguably draconian lockdown measures. These have together devastated certain sectors – notably tourism, transport and the hospitality and entertainment business, and led to a serious increase in unemployment.
Many returning migrant workers will have brought money back with them, which will have helped those families and local communities to which they have returned. Many who came back from India are now going back there because they have run out of savings, and have no jobs in Nepal.
Nearly 80,000 Nepali workers have flown back from the Gulf, Malaysia and other countries. And as those destination countries also try to control the epidemic, the flow of remittances is bound to diminish in the coming months.
After the lifting of the lockdown led to a surge of Covid-19 nationwide, and now Kathmandu Valley, the government re-imposed restrictions in 48 districts out of 77 districts.
The total 45,277 cases remains relatively low in comparison with many other countries of the same size of population. The number of deaths at 280 is also comparatively small. The UK, which has more than double of Nepal’s population, for example, the total number of cases is now roughly 340,000 and the number of recorded deaths at 46,000.
Nepal’s early peak (in April in Nepal) has been followed, first by a decline to a level comparable to the early days of the outbreak (in July in Nepal), and then by a resurgence following a lifting of the lockdown to a point where now the average daily figure for the number of cases tops 1,000.
The omens are not good. The epidemic is clearly not under control, and it is not evident that a total or widespread lockdown is likely to provide anything more than another temporary respite.
The only strategy that is likely to succeed in the medium term is one in which both the basics of maintaining physical distance, wearing masks and washing hands thoroughly are emphasised in all advice and are duly followed by all the population.
A universal test and trace approach also needs to be adopted, combined with a ‘cat and mouse’ (what PM Boris Johnson referred to as ‘whack-a-mole’) strategy of selective lockdown, test and trace in the case of local outbreaks, to ‘hit’ the virus hard when it re-appears.
In the long run, the main hopes are:
- Increasing numbers of those infected will recover and gain immunity, creating a sufficient ‘critical mass’ of immune people, to reduce the ‘R’ rate to a minimum
- The virus will mutate to become less virulent
- Treatments will lead to a significant decline in cases of seriously ill people and numbers dying
- A vaccine or vaccines will be available to a majority of the population to raise immunity and reduce the chances of becoming seriously ill.
David Seddon is author of Nepal in Crisis: Growth and Stagnation in the Periphery and The Struggle for Basic Needs in Nepal, Nepal – A State of Poverty, and co-author of The People’s War.