Rajaram Sapkota and his family left for his home in Kavre a day before the government announced the lockdown on 24 March. When the restrictions were relaxed, the family returned on 28 May.
But when they got to the rented room, neighbours did not allow them in. The family went to the local police station, which referred them to the Ward Office. It was only after providing detailed travel description that the family received clearance to re-enter their homes.
The Sapkotas were lucky, other returning families have had to spend much time and money to self-quarantine and get tests.
Navaraj Baskota returned from Dhading on 25 May to reopen his store in Teku to supplement family income. Even after a 14-day self-imposed quarantine, the landlord allowed Baskota into his room only after his COVID-19 test result came back negative.
Ramesh Rai of Panchkhal returned to Kathmandu on 15 June. His landlord also insisted on a COVID-19 test before allowing him back. Even if it came back negative, he has been told to live in self-imposed quarantine for the next 14 days.
At a time when there is a backlog of swab samples to be tested for COVID-19, labs have to deal with an increasing demand for PCR tests from people returning to Kathmandu who are required to present a negative report before being allowed back to their rented flats.
The evidence is seen at the Shukraraj Tropical and Infectious Diseases Hospital in Teku, where there is a daily throng of families waiting to be tested.
“Half the people here are those who urgently need clearance from their landlords,” says hospital director Sagar Kumar Rajbhandari. “There are more people here forced by landlords to get tested than those who have symptoms or are from high risk groups.”
Nepal relying on unreliable COVID-19 kits, Ramu Sapkota
While the government announced a loosening of restrictions on 15 June, arrivals to the capital from the late hours of 14 June reached 5,797 people. Government has also announced a night curfew in addition to the lockdown. Police is now stricter at entry points to Kathmandu, and detained three buses at Thankot on Sunday.
Back at Teku hospital, the lines for testing start at six in the morning and people are still lining up till late afternoon. With only one hospital available for PCR testing in the Valley, the queues have become difficult to manage, and are also a health hazard.
“We are already been performing more than 200 tests daily, but there are hundreds more who need tests. Most are asymptomatic and stable returnees pressured by their employers or landlords. Crowd management is becoming more difficult,” Rajbhandari explained.
The pressure is stretching the hospital’s resources. According to the protocol, only basic RDT (Rapid Diagnostic Testing) is performed on returnees from unaffected areas and those who show no symptoms, while PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests are conducted on returnees from affected areas, those displaying symptoms, employees of the government and Parliament Secretariat and high-level officials and VIPs.
“Those only needing clearance to return home have been given basic testing. Suspected carriers and vulnerable individuals have been given full PCR reports,” said hospital spokesperson Anup Bastola. “We shoud provide basic testing at all hospitals so we don’t have to use scarce PCR kits for low-risk returnees and to avoid over-crowding.”
With 75% of returnees arriving without prior notice, there is no option but to enforce testing before allowing re-entry, says Ramesh Dangol of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Re-entry has been tightened after a 48-year-old woman tested positive in Ward 5.
“While the ward had been granting clearances to re-enter, this became difficult after a returnee and a local became infected,” Dangol added. “It is difficult to balance resumption of economic activities with the risk of imported cases.”
Dangol believes if testing was decentralised, it would reduce the pressure on Teku and also allow safe and coordinated return of families to Kathmandu.
Read also: Why Nepal lags in COVID-19 testing, Ramu Sapkota