Last week Kuwait imposed travel bans on Nepalis, and last week 30 Nepali workers en route to Bahrain were returned from the UAE to Nepal.
Public health experts say that workers are vulnerable because just one asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus can spread it to other workers living in crowded dorms. Some years, up to 1,000 Nepali workers in the Gulf and Malaysia have died, and this grim statistic could see an increase if the epidemic spreads.
“There is no evidence yet that COVID-19 is present in the work camps, but all it takes is one infected individual to spread it among others, so they would need to be tested, and if they come out positive may have to be isolated,” says Sameer M Dixit, a scientist at the at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal. “Nepal itself may have infected people who are not diagnosed.”
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is another coronavirus epidemic in West Asia which has killed 855 and infected 2,500 people in the past eight years. Adds Dixit: “It is a pure miracle that MERS did not end up affecting Nepalis even though there was a much higher case-fatality rate of 34% compared to COVID-19.”
The epicentre of the Korea outbreak is the city of Daegu which has many Nepali workers. There have been over 7,100 cases detected, and 50 deaths so far, but the Korean public health system has made sure that the disease is contained, and Nepalis there say they feel safe.
‘Even foreigners living here illegally or without visas can get a free test without any questions,’ reads a Public Service Announcement by the South Korean government.
“Things are pretty normal around here,” a Nepali worker who did not want to be named told us by phone. “Awareness about precautions is high among workers, and we are frequently updated by official announcements.” Nepali workers going to Korea are on a government-to-government Employment Permit Scheme (EPS) and are required to pass a Korean language test, which means they can understand the COVID-19 updates.