A year of living dangerously

QFX Cinema at the Labim Mall multiplex is scheduled to reopen on 25 December. The cinema halls will observe strict protocols, including mask, half-capacity halls, disinfection after each show and no food and drinks. Photos: BIKRAM RAI

It was December 2019, and world was gearing up for a brand new decade. The most worrying things in most people’s minds were the climate crisis and Trumpism.

The 2020s were expected to be a harbinger of new hopes and beginnings. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, throwing the world upside down, sowing uncertainty, loss and panic across the world.

Nepal recorded its first Covid-19 case on 23 January from a male student who had returned from Wuhan, and was infected ten days previously. Now, almost a year later, the numbers are nearing 260,000 and the death toll has crossed 1,750.

The government response has been characterised by flip-flopping policies, contradictory rules and lack of coordination. Political leaders and the bureaucracy were wrapped up in the power struggle in the ruling party that lasted the whole year, and led to the dissolution of the Lower House this week.

The government promptly established the Covid-19 Crisis Management Committee (CCMC) after the second Covid-19 case was detected, and Nepal was one of the first countries in the region to go into strict nationwide lockdown.

“We panicked before time and when it was time to act, the people have given up fighting Covid, when they should be even more vigilant now,” public health expert Sher Bahadur Pun told Nepali Times, warning about the virus variants that could make the pandemic spread even faster.

Pun adds: “The government had ample time to learn from China, Europe and other countries to curb the spread of the virus, but it lacked the commitment and resources. Because of this, things could get worse.”

When the first Covid-19 case was recorded in January, Pun who was an employee at the Sukraraj Hospital saw people returning from China get ostracised. Then the discrimination shifted to people from the plains, and to frontline health workers.

In Kathmandu, many doctors, nurses, caregivers were asked to move out from their rented apartments. “Covid unleashed the worst side of people and this will have a long term effect,” Pun adds.

Indeed, the impact has gone beyond strictly public health aspects of the disease. The prolonged lockdowns, uncertainty, job loss, and lack of social contact has led to pandemics of depression and mental health problems, suicides, exacerbated the condition of those with pre-existing health conditions.

Statistic also show a direct correlation between the lockdown period and the incidents of gender-based violence and rape, which also rose dramatically in April-August. (See graphs).


The lockdowns did have some indirect positive impact: the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Kathmandu and the plains improved dramatically in April-July as vehicles went off the roads. The number of highway fatalities went down by half to less than 700 in March-August 2020, compared to the same period the previous year.

“Nepalis outside the urban sphere have very little idea about mental health, and the lockdown was not helpful at all. Being cooped up at home for months and being socially distanced is one of the main causes for the high number of suicides,” explains psychiatrist Kamal Gautam at Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO) Nepal.

Nepal Police data shows that the monthly total of reported suicides in Nepal shot up to 972 in July from 668 in June, and 352 in January before the lockdowns.

“If people do not get treatment in time and still think mental health is a taboo, suicides are bound to happen. Economic hardships and being cooped up at home are the major reasons for the increase in the number of suicides,” Gautam says.

A survey by TPO Nepal with over 2,000 participants showed that 50% of those sampled showed some symptoms of psychological disorders such as anxiety and stress.

Gautam blames the increasing disorders to the ‘infodemic’ of death and sickness in the mainstream press and social media. “What do you do at home for three months? Get on social media and become experts on every topic possible and perhaps misinform people creating panic,” Gautam warned.

There was also an alarming rise in gender-based violence. In April, the group WOREC Nepal registered 36 cases of domestic violence against women, but by July this number had risen to 380. Forms of violence included domestic violence, rape, attempted rape and sexual abuse.

“It’s women who have had to bear the brunt of the Covid lockdown. The economic hardship and the increasing mental and sexual frustration in men has led to an increase of such incidents. Those who are weaker in the family get attacked,” says WOREC’S Sulochana Khanal.

Statistics show that suicide and violence against women increased steeply during the lockdown and started falling gradually when it was lifted in August. Similarly, as businesses opened and traffic picked up in August, air pollution in Kathmandu Valley and along highways got worse and the number of fatalities on the roads soared. By the Dasain-Tihar festival in November, the number of deaths on the roads had spiked to 242 after falling to 52 in May.

“The lockdown helped bring the AQI level from unhealthy to good, but if you look at the trend in the past, it shows that January always has unhealthy air to breathe while it goes down to breathable air during monsoon,” says environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar.

Traffic Police are among those worst affected by the pandemic. Since March, 407 traffic police have tested positive for SARS-Cov-2. And now with the increase in pollution, they are exposed to COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) risk.

“Everyone is in a rush, where do they have to go?” asks a frustrated Traffic Police spokesperson, Shyam Krishna Adhikari. “People have been driving more recklessly after the lockdown, they are drinking and driving because there is less checking.”

Nepal also had high hopes for Visit Nepal 2020 with a target of welcoming 2 million tourists. But the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) was forced to cancel the campaign. Tourist arrival figures show a dramatic drop after March to zero for three months after, and although the numbers picked up a bit after flights resumed in October, it looks like 2021 will also be a washout.

“Despite recent vaccine developments, it will take a few years for people to start travelling as they used to. The tourism sector will likely recover by mid-2022," says Deepak Raj Joshi, former CEO of NTB. "But if we are well equipped for other future crises, communicate to the world about our preparedness and tap into the growing South Asian market, we can recover."

Joshi’s motto is: “Survive 2020, revive in 2021 and thrive in 2022.”