2AM is too late


The migration sector is a zoom lens through which we can examine up close Nepal's socio-economic and political problems through recent history. 

To a greater or lesser degree, all Nepalis suffer from the country’s chronic malaise: discrimination, exclusion, poverty, indebtedness, joblessness, poor health care and education, all a result of an uncaring state. 

But it is when citizens decide it is too much trouble to remain, or risk it all to leave their families and birthplace for a better shot at life, that the true impact of leadership failure and government neglect is thrown into sharp focus.

The government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic since February 2020 is a case in point: it has cost lives at home, and magnified the misery of Nepali workers overseas.

To be sure, most governments around the world have mismanaged the pandemic. But that is no excuse.

There were four labour ministers in the past two years, but they were all AWOL. And the situation now is no different, when there is no labour minister. The government was slow to respond last year to repatriate Nepali workers stuck in the Gulf and Malaysia. The flights did happen, but too little, too late, and too expensive. Compensation schemes were not properly implemented. 

As recovery from the second wave stalls, and ICUs fill up again, the new government has appointed a private hospital operator as state minister of health. We will give him the benefit of doubt for now: who knows, he may have the mojo to do a better job than his predecessors.

But this week, thousands of migrant workers had to wait all night at Teku Hospital just for a rubber stamped piece of paper to certify they have been vaccinated. Some were in line for 28 hours for a letter that may not even be valid for travel because it does not have a QR code.

This is just the latest demonstration of the appalling neglect of desperate migrants by the health and labour bureaucracy. Instead of making it as convenient as possible for them, state actors treat them with apathy, flip-flopping rules, and add yet another layer of hardship to an already complex recruitment process with workers victims to cheating, high fees and false promises. 

The process entails visiting different offices, standing in line, being treated with lack of respect and dignity by the authorities and ripped off by ‘manpower’ agents. 

There is an added hurdle: testing, quarantine and vaccination rules that are confusing, inconsistent, and costly for workers. There are hidden costs for migrants from remote parts of Nepal who have to make expensive visits to Kathmandu for documents. 

Meanwhile, the migrant diaspora props up the economy by sending $7 billion home every year even during the Covid-19 crisis (see graph). And overseas Nepalis were the first to help by raising money for oxygen cylinders and other equipment during the second wave. 

Migration is important not just for the national economy, but for individual families.The difference between remittance and no remittance for many Nepalis is poverty, inability to send children to good schools, or afford hospital bills. 

Labour approvals for new migrants dropped to only 75,000 last year — the lowest figure in 20 years. This puts even more families at risk, especially during the pandemic when there is no social safety net, and schemes like the Prime Minister’s Employment Progam are a farce. 

The reportage on Teku by Upasana Khadka this week is a deplorable image that showed both the desperation for overseas work, and the lack of empathy from the authorities. The crowded queues risk turning hospitals into hotspots for the virus. 

The appalling lines this week demonstrated indifference and lack of coordination towards those at the mercy of the state. You know things are not all right and the government has failed its citizenry when a migrant realises that 2AM is too late to stand in line to obtain a simple piece of paper.

The ministry finally authorised four hospitals for vaccine certification to thin the crowds. Why didn’t they think of that before? There are other concerns about the one-shot J&J doses running out, and inconsistent vaccine acceptability in destination countries. 

Give migrants clear information, strengthen coordination between the health and labour bureaucracies, decentralise services with more staff at service delivery points, and stop harassing them every step of the way.