Just what form a loosening of the lockdown will take is not yet clear, but public health experts have advised against opening the borders and restarting international flights just yet. In addition, they say certain hotspots like Udaypur, Kailali and parts of western Nepal where there have been cases of community transmission may need to be isolated for at least two more weeks.
Sri Lanka, which has seen 254 confirmed cases and seven reported deaths has started lifting its COVID-19 curfew in two phases this week. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a staggered exit after the lockdown period ends on 3 May, and measures may include allowing travel within cities in the ‘green zone’, partial opening of government offices, mandatory masks and physical distancing, and a continued ban on flights and inter-state traffic.
On Wednesday, India recorded the highest daily number of confirmed cases with 500, bringing the total to 15,859 and 652 deaths. In Indian states bordering Nepal, Uttar Pradesh has had 1,412 confirmed cases with 21 fatalities, while Bihar has recorded 126 cases and 2 deaths.
While these numbers are negligible compared to India’s vast population size, public health experts say it is proof that India’s strict and unprecedented lockdown is working, but warn against lifting it too soon. They are especially worried about urban hotspots in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Meanwhile, Bihar state has announced it will start reopening government offices this week, West Bengal is opening agriculture, construction, IT and industries. Kerala has even allowed restaurants to reopen, and let city buses and industries run.
What India does has a direct bearing on Nepal because of the porous border and the movement of each others’ nationals across it despite it being sealed. Experts say Nepal’s phase-wise lifting of lockdown restrictions which are due to end 27 April, will necessarily have to mirror India re-opening. It is expected to entail limited local public transport with restrictions on passenger numbers, taxis with only one passenger within cities, no motorcycles, full mobility for agricultural activity and limited resumption of infrastructure, industry and commerce.
The government’s biggest challenge now will be to have a contingency plan in place in case Nepali migrant workers from Malaysia and the Gulf are sent home en masse. In the short-term massive quarantine capacity will be needed, and after that hundreds of thousands of new jobs need to be created in agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. Nepal’s travel trade employs a million people, and a strategy to reposition and kick-starting tourism will be critical.
Says Deepak Raj Joshi, former CEO of Nepal Tourism Board: “We have to plan so that in 2020 we survive, in 2021 we revive, and in 2022 we thrive.”
The India connection in Nepal’s COVID-19 status, Nepali Times