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One year ago, on March 24, 2020, Nepal went into complete lockdown. Almost all businesses -- those selling essential goods were allowed to open for a certain period during the mornings -- were shut down and all public movement, except for emergencies, was restricted. Those found out on the streets were corralled by the police using large metal grabbers into makeshift pens. All borders were closed, all flights suspended. A pall of fear descended on the country, despite the fact that only two cases of Covid-19 had been detected in the country at the time of the lockdown.
Initially slated for just a week, the lockdown was extended by increments, eventually lasting nearly four months. It was finally lifted on July 21, 2020, although restrictions on large gatherings and social distancing rules remained in effect.
Gradually, Nepal opened back up, shops reopened, business resumed and flights restarted. And suddenly, there were large parties, concerts, and political rallies. In the months to come, Nepal would go back to ‘normal’, and today, the country appears to have all but forgotten the pandemic.
But Covid-19 hasn’t gone away. On Monday, March 23, Nepal reported 188 new cases of the coronavirus, a steady increase from 150 on Sunday and 77 on Saturday. Across the southern border, a second wave is sweeping India, with 40,715 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, and there are fears that Nepal too could see a rise in cases, necessitating another lockdown.
Another lockdown could be devastating, especially if policymakers do not consider the untold misery inflicted on Nepalis by the first lockdown.
When the lockdown was announced, the Kathmandu Valley emptied out as Nepalis made their way back to their home districts, often walking for hundreds of kilometers since the government had not ensured any safe transport for them. Nepali migrant workers in India too sought to come home but were turned away at the border, forcing some to swim the raging waters of the Mahakali in a desperate bid to get to their families. Still others -- like Malar Sada from Saptari and Sher Bahadur Tamang in Kirtipur -- died of hunger and exhaustion after being unable to work for food. Businesses went into the red and entire livelihoods were destroyed. The lockdown, and the pandemic, threatened to push one-third of Nepalis back into poverty, the World Bank warned.
The effectiveness of lockdown has yet to be formally evaluated but it is important to reflect on what worked and what did not, especially in the face of a still-present pandemic.
“The government’s approach to the pandemic was more reactive than proactive,” Dr Anup Subedee, an infectious disease expert, told the Record. “The challenges could have been anticipated earlier and complications could have been avoided sooner. The government did not understand the importance of data and gave very little importance to testing and contact tracing.”
Official data shows that the lockdown appears to have kept the coronavirus at bay as cases of Covid-19 did not rise exponentially during the restrictions. Nepal’s Covid-19 peak only came in mid-October 2020 when over 5,700 new cases were reported in a single day, months after the lockdown had been lifted.
“A lockdown can be necessary at a certain point, when measures like quarantine, isolation, and testing fail,” said Dr Anup Subedee. “In Nepal’s case, the lockdown helped contain the number of infected from rising rapidly. But just imposing a lockdown without implementing other measures was not right.”
Even if the lockdown limited the spread of Covid-19, the costs -- economic, social, and psychological -- were massive. Across the world -- as people sheltered in place for months at a time, only emerging to buy groceries -- mental health took a nosedive, with anxiety, depression, and social isolation on the rise. The costs incurred by the lockdown were not matched with action to prevent further spread of the virus once the lockdown was lifted, according to Dr Subedee. Lockdowns provide a window of time to prepare the country’s defenses but in Nepal, this opportunity was squandered.
“If we took care of what we had control over , like quarantine, isolation, and contact tracing, then the pandemic would have been handled better,” he said. “We could have avoided many deaths too.”
In the end, all that we learned from the lockdown and the pandemic wasn’t anything new. As is standard, the government did not fail but it was not successful either.
“To criticise the government alone in terms of its Covid-19 response would not be ideal as there are sectors where it has done a good job,” said epidemiologist Dr Lhamo Sherpa. “Many of us had been warning the government about the virus since early December 2019, but the government’s rhetoric was more focused on the country being immune to the virus. The government focused more on post-infection rather than on prevention.”
But focusing on infections meant that the pandemic laid bare the dismal state of Nepal’s health infrastructure and it was a miracle that Nepal did not lose more people to Covid-19. Frontline workers like doctors and nurses, though overworked and underpaid, held the line, despite the lack of institutional or government support. While Kathmandu managed to prevent its hospitals from overflowing, the situation was more dire in the provinces, largely due to a failure to coordinate between the different levels of government, said Dr Sherpa.
Members of the KP Sharma Oli government did not fail to capitalize on a global pandemic to line their own pockets, as allegations of corruption in the procurement of medical supplies from China continued well into the lockdown. Political infighting continued, with the prime minister and member of his cabinet more focused on propping up their government rather than responding to the unfolding crisis. As always, politics trumped everything else in the country.
The marginalized -- women, migrant workers, daily wage laborers, Dalits, the LGBTIQ community -- all suffered disproportionately, as they do in any large disaster. They lost incomes, jobs, and even their lives.
The lessons of the lockdown are manifold but they are not new. Investing in health care and social protection should come naturally to any leftist party but Nepal’s socialist and communists have failed time and again. Institutional reforms are surely necessary but so is basic empathy. Leaders of government, including Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, were venal and selfish, caring little for the travails of the poor and the marginalized.
Earlier this year, as Covid-19 vaccinations were rolled out, Nepalis were optimistic, even though the government contradicted its own guidelines to vaccinate diplomats, UN workers, and journalists before the elderly got their first jabs. But there are already warnings that vaccinations will not be enough and that precautions still need to be exercised.
In evaluating the role of the government during the pandemic, it is necessary to take a broad view, say public health experts. It is important to give credit where it is due, such as the numerous bureaucrats and state functionaries who attempted to do everything they could to stem the pandemic. But it is also important to hold those in power accountable for their actions.
“Accountability was missing,” said Dr Subedee. “Those in the bureaucracy involved in handling the Covid-19 crisis were neither rewarded nor held accountable.”
With Covid-19 cases rising, the Health Ministry has once again, in an eerie reminder of the early days of the pandemic, issued a notice asking Nepalis to maintain social distance, avoid large gatherings, wear masks, and wash their hands regularly.
“There are clear guidelines--unnecessary travel should be avoided, those infected or suspected should be isolated, quarantined and tested,” said Dr Subedee. “We are better prepared than we were a year ago in terms of knowledge and experience but we need to implement all safety guidelines throughout.”
And this time around, whatever measures are enforced to limit the spread of the coronavirus, it would do well for policymakers to place people at the heart.
The Record We are an independent digital publication based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Our stories examine politics, the economy, society, and culture. We look into events both current and past, offering depth, analysis, and perspective. Explore our features, explainers, long reads, multimedia stories, and podcasts. There’s something here for everyone.
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