2020’s tips for 2021
Even if we bid farewell to 2020, it is clear that we will be feeling its impact for the rest of the 2020s.
There may be mutations of SARS-CoV-2 even more virulent than the new strain discovered in England this week, other zoonotic diseases could emerge because of the destruction of nature globally, or there could be other contagions.
The scale of this pandemic also made possible breakthroughs in vaccine development at unprecedented speed. First came Pfizer, then Moderna, followed by AstraZeneca. There is Russia’s Sputnik V, and a slew of other vaccines coming out in India and China, including one that does not need injections, but can be sprayed into the nasal cavity.
But the pandemic has also exposed and exacerbated inequality around the world. Only one out of 10 people in developing countries will get Covid-19 vaccine in 2021. Nepal will probably be at the end of the queue, and within Nepal the underprivileged and those in remote areas may be the last to get jabs.
The political crisis in Nepal at the tail end of 2020 has not helped. While other countries announce vaccine dates, our prime minister has set election dates. The pandemic raged throughout 2020, but the leadership of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was too busy feuding to notice, or care.
The Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign had to be called off in March as the country went into lockdown. Nepal’s already inequitable and inaccessible health care system could not cope with the demand for tests and treatment as the pandemic spread. Schools remained closed for most of the year, and online classes by better off schools only brought out the digital divide and income gap within Nepal. Nepal’s remittance-based economy did not do badly, but the pandemic caused untold suffering to millions of migrant workers in India and overseas.
However, the coronavirus crisis can also be a turning point, an opportunity for paradigm shift in our economy, consumption patterns, health care, education and every facet of national life.
E-commerce platforms have taken off, and can now build on consumer trust they gained during the pandemic. Despite past achievements, conservationists have been forced to think out of the box to control increased wildlife crime. Online education got a real start. New bilateral labour agreements were signed with countries like Israel and Malaysia.
Nepali Times selected six sectors, and how they can actually turn the Covid calamity into an opening to do things better, cleaner and more equitably.
Covid prepared Nepal to deal with other diseases
Nothing has quite exposed limitations in Nepal’s health system as the Covid-19 pandemic. To be sure, even the largest economies in the world have struggled to cope with the scale of the public health emergency.
Nepal actually took a bold step very early on by being the first country in the region to impose a strict national lockdown, choosing public health over the economy. But a distracted and corrupt state machinery squandered it. Complacency coupled with bungling of Covid-19 test kit imports, preference for the faulty Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) over RT PCR and inadequate contact tracing in the initial phase added to the challenge.
On logistics side, there weren’t sufficient personal protective gear and surgical masks for health workers. There was chronic shortage of hospital beds and staff. And as Covid-19 cases surged in major cities, there weren’t enough ICUs and ventilators for the seriously sick.
“There were significant gaps in all aspects: governance and leadership, human resource, financing, health information, service delivery and essential drugs, vaccines and physical infrastructure. The pandemic has only highlighted this fact,” says Baburam Marasini, former director of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division.
Most coronavirus patients are now isolating at home without the resources or knowledge about managing their condition. Moreover, most families which have members in home isolation live in such crowded quarters that it is impossible to take necessary precautions.
For all intents and purposes, the government surrendered to the virus. It left citizens to their own devices, started charging for tests and Covid-19 patients even in government hospitals, and stopped contact tracing. It also ignored expert advice on increasing the number of beds in wards with basic oxygen supply instead of spending money on ICUs and ventilators.
Which is why despite assurances from the government about availability of vaccine once they are authorised for use, Nepalis are not convinced.
But this crisis isn’t without silver linings. Surprisingly, Nepal has not done too badly compared to even some developed countries. Although the number of tests have gone down, the positivity rate has fallen, as has the daily fatality rate.
“Covid-19 has reinforced the significance of hygiene and cleanliness, we wear masks all the time and this has lead to drastic reduction in other common infections such as TB,” adds Marasini. “The crisis has also highlighted the need of medical surveillance at the border checkpoints and amendments to infectious diseases law. If we act now, we will be ready for any future pandemics.”
Didn’t Visit Nepal Year 2020
It is now strange to look back at January 2020, and the fact that we kicked off Visit Nepal Year with a controversy about its yeti mascot.
In January, colourful and larger than life fiberglass sculptures of squatting yetis appeared overnight at Kathmandu landmarks. But it was the depiction of the living goddess Kumari in these two metre tall figures that drew sharp criticism from locals who called it “insensitive” and spray-painted over them.
Then Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai (who resigned last week) drew flak for promoting Nepal in Australia which was struggling to control unprecedented wildfires and told Aussies they should visit Nepal because it was “coronavirus free”. He was widely ridiculed.
Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign was scrapped and several high-profile promotional events planned for the first half of the year were cancelled. Next, the government cancelled all climbing and trekking expeditions, including Mt Everest, for the spring season.
Thousands of trekking tour guides and porters lost their livelihoods so did people employed in the hospitality sector, as hotels, resorts and restaurants remained shut for months. More than a million people with jobs in tourism were affected.
Large-scale projects like the Bhairawa and Pokhara regional airports got further delayed, new five star hotels in Kathmandu were either scrapped or remained half-built.
From 17 October, trekkers and mountaineers were allowed into the country but with a set of conditions that deterred all except the most motivated travellers. Sightseeing visitors, pilgrims and other foreigners were mysteriously not allowed. Tourist visas were finally open from mid-December and Kathmandu-Delhi flights resumed after 11 months. Total visitors so far in 2020 against the 2 million target: 182,078. Most of them came in January-March.
But not all is lost says former CEO of Nepal tourist Board Deepak Raj Joshi, adding that Nepal can recover ahead of others by turning the crisis into an opportunity to reinvent the sector, while also promoting local tourism. Domestic visitors partially compensated for the absence of foreign tourists this year in places like Chitwan, Nagarkot and Pokhara after restrictions were removed. Domestic airlines have started Mt Everest sightseeing flights for Nepalis.
“Tourism after the pandemic will be nature-based, people will want to travel in isolation and experience worthwhile adventure, and Nepal is the best destination for all of these,” says Joshi, now with the World Tourism Network. “But we have to focus on developing safe travel corridors within destinations and communicate well about our preparedness to the world.”
Industry experts also suggest tapping into the growing South Asian market such as India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and identifying niche segments within them.
Says Joshi: “We can revive the industry by mid 2022 and if we do it right, it will help us revive many sectors intrinsically tied with it.”
Online education for some
A majority of schools in Nepal have been shut for a year now. In that time, like elsewhere in the world, schools here tried their hand at online classes, and for a while it looked like the country was set to leapfrog in education.
Alas, it could not be. The Education Ministry used the excuse of the ‘digital divide’ to discourage private schools from online classes while dragging its feet to address remote classes in government schools, where 80% of students are enrolled.
A recent survey showed that 95% of households said their children had stopped going to school, and 52% were not even studying at home. Only 29% had access to distance learning, but that only half were using it.
With no schooling or online classes, some 53% of female students may not go back to schools when they reopen, revealed another survey by Room To Read.
Girl child without school and faced with the economic fallout of the pandemic are at particular risk. Many of them got married or eloped during the pandemic (in fact, 30 child marriages took place in one municipality in Sarlahi district during the lockdown), others have been lured into seeking jobs, and some have even fallen prey to labour and sexual exploitation.
“If not for schools, remote villages in Nepal would marry more of their daughters young. But now that we have well informed local leaders and representatives across Nepal, they must build positive societal pressure to reform old practices,” says Pravitra Gautam of Karkhana.
The Covid-19 pandemic amplified existing inequalities in Nepal’s education system and demonstrated its vulnerability in the face of a crisis. But policy changes in the education sector to adapt to the changed situation have been slow and unimaginative. The right combination of online and physical education however can be the new progressive normal in 2021.
“Online education is transformative in many levels but subject matters such as agriculture, medicine and engineering need hands-on practice,” says Gautam. “There should be a symbiosis between digital lessons with its flexibility and physically distanced, health protocol, well thought out engagement with the real world.”
The year of migrants
On 18 December it was International Migrants Day, and what a year it has been for the estimated 4 million Nepalis who work abroad. They toiled in crowded labour camps, survived cruel employers, got stuck in no man’s land and yet were resilient in the face of uncertainly, serving those in need during the pandemic in the destination countries.
Social media was an essential tool at their disposal and many migrant workers in the Gulf took to Facebook and YouTube to communicate their living conditions, and requested to return home.
The initial figure of those who registered for repatriation was astronomical, not counting hundreds of thousands who returned via land border from India. As expected, repatriation flights were too little too late, and mired with bureaucratic hassles. Nepal’s embassies and the non-resident Nepali community did their bit, but the challenge was overwhelming.
Eventually, most migrant workers (even those who had registered for repatriation flights) chose to stay back in the Gulf as the Covid situation worsened in Nepal, and they found they still had work because of the pandemic-driven demand for caregivers, domestic help and workers in factories making gloves and personal protective equipment.
However, defying all dire predictions about a drastic drop in remittances, migrants sent back record-breaking amounts of money to their families in Nepal, the inflow actually rose compared to last year. This is in stark contrast to the World Bank’s prediction of a 14% decline, a worst-case scenario of a 28.7% drop by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the forecast of an 18% reduction by Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
2020 was also marked with bilateral agreements in favour of migrant workers: labour deal with Israel to hire caregivers and a social security agreement with Malaysia.
“The demography is changing, societies are getting older so countries such as Japan is being forced to open up for caregivers. Nepalis will see more opportunities to work in care sector in the Gulf and OECD countries,” says Upasana Khadka, a researcher and Nepali Times columnist.
“But there will come a time when Nepal will have to think of managing its own senior citizens in about 35 years when it transitions from a young country into an aging society,” Khadka says.
Into the wild
Nepal is a successful conservation model for the world, and nearly a quarter of its territory are made up of protected areas. With its community forestry program, the country managed to double its forest cover in only 25 years. Nepal is also the first tiger range country to double the number of its big cats, ahead of the 2022 target.
But with the lockdowns placed to contain coronavirus came a series of bad news about an increase in poaching of wildlife. Six musk deer found dead in wire traps in Sagarmatha National Park in April.
Then came reports of rhino deaths, at least 15 have been recorded since the restrictions were placed after six years of zero rhino poaching. Prior to this, an elephant and three crocodiles were killed in national parks. Illegal logging is also on the rise. All of this can undermine our past achievements in conservation.
“A lot of people returned from India and Gulf during the initial phase of coronavirus crisis, they were essentially jobless and with no other livelihood option, wildlife crime is a lucrative business,” says Nabin Baidya of the group Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN). “It is very crucial that we provide alternative livelihood options and engage youth in productive areas.”
WCN, which was set up in 2002 at the height of organised wildlife trade in Nepal and has since pioneered wildlife sting operations (and in October published Biodiversity Conservation and Wildlife Crime Control Resource Book) recently held a webinar with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation to discuss next steps in conservation following coronavirus crisis.
Sanjeevani Yonjan of WCN says the focus should now be on infrastructure that is wildlife friendly, strategies to reduce human-animal conflict and on managing the impacts of climate crisis on the ecosystem.
“We need to continue educating youth about the environment and train wildlife officials but this is also an opportunity to think about bolder and bigger conservation strategies on the landscape level, developing corridors, building highway with underpasses.”
E-commerce gets a much-needed boost
The pandemic has forced us to think out of the box, and catch up with the rest of the world in e-commerce and online economy. Much like how people are working from home and students are taking online classes, Nepalis have taken to online shopping, in particular there has been significant surge in stay-at-home orders for all kinds of goods.
Ironically, e-commerce, which struggled for years to gain a viable market in Nepal, is perhaps the only sector with positive growth in 2020. In fact, despite the economic fallout of the pandemic, Daraz’s annual 11.11 sale in November broke all previous records with transactions worth Rs20.52 million within the first hour, a 60% increase from last year.
The event saw significantly higher numbers in online pre-payment via wallet and bank card taking up 45% of the total sales.
“During this pandemic we saw the kind of growth we were expecting to take place in the next two years. There were challenges but we have seen consumer confidence in contactless transaction grow significantly during this time,” says Amitesh Roy, Chief Commercial Officer at Sastodeal, which recently merged with India’s biggest online store, Flipkart.
Neighbouring India and China have dominant e-commerce players, but Nepal has lagged far behind due to the primate state of electronic payment mechanisms. But the fact that e-commerce giants like Alibaba and Flipkart have entered the Nepali market with their partnerships with Daraz and Sastodeal mean they see a bright future for e-commerce in Nepal.
It is expected that a rapidly increasing Internet penetration rate (which was only 9% in 2011 and has now grown to 60%) will significantly aid in the growth of e-commerce industry.
But most online sites still rely on cash payment on delivery or mobile-wallet companies like e-Sewa and Khalti. Online payment by credit or debit card would streamline e-commerce, but it has yet to take off in Nepal. Digital shopping is also still limited to main cities.
International online purchase by credit card is also hindered by Nepal Rastra Bank regulations on cross border payments because of concerns over money laundering and credit card fraud.
But the proposed electronic commerce bill is expected to pave the way forward, streamline and standardise the online payment process while protecting user data and privacy. The draft also has provisions for easy return, exchange and refund of the goods.
Buyers can also cancel the order within 24 hours and businesses have to deliver on time given the nature of products purchased. Any traders found violating the rules will be fined anywhere between Rs25,000 to Rs300,000.
Says Roy: “We are trying to be a relevant as a local player in this market where we are competing against global e-commerce giant like Alibaba which just goes on to show that we have a real potential here.”