Ke garne attitude kills people

Epidemics are nothing new in Nepal. In fact, the country’s history is littered with references to frequent outbreaks of cholera, influenza, measles and other disease that killed thousands at a time Nepal.

Yet, despite knowledge about prevention or the availability of vaccines, Nepalis still continue to die in large numbers. An outbreak of diarrhoea killed 200 people, mostly children, in Jajarkot in 2009. Last year’s unprecedented eruption of dengue in Kathmandu infected 15,000 and killed at least a dozen people.

So, for Nepal the only difference between the coronavirus pandemic and previous disease outbreaks is that it is global in scope, and it has wrecked the economy. The government has been more proactive this time, compared to previous epidemics in taking strict measures to prevent the spread, like the lockdown which has now lasted nearly three weeks.

Even so, experts say Nepal’s response was unnecessarily delayed. Nepal was one of the first countries outside China to report a case of COVID-19 when a Nepali student who had returned from Wuhan tested positive for the virus on 24 January. He later recovered, and right new cases have been detected since, but it was only in the second week of April that the government finally began mass testing in western Nepal and Tarai districts, where there have been returning migrant workers from India.

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The mosquito-borne haemmorhagic fever is already being reported in all seven provinces. Cases have been arriving in hospitals which are already on high alert of COVID-19. A double epidemic would mean medical facilities will be overwhelmed.

“We are not new to epidemics. Thousands of children continue to die of easily preventable diarrhoea every year and there will be another dengue outbreak this summer, but where is the preparedness?” asks Gangalal Tuladhar, a disaster expert and politburo member of the ruling Nepal Communist Party. “It is a primary duty of a responsible government to prepare for any disaster or an epidemic before it strikes.”

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It is ironic that a senior member of a ruling political party that commands a near two-thirds majority in Parliament is the one complaining about the government being lax. To be sure, the government has been strict in enforcing the lockdown, and Prime Minister Oli hinted during a conference call with provincial chief ministers on Saturday that the lockdown may need to be extended because the virus was spreading in India.

Also, local government have been crediting with taking effective prevention measures, including house-to-house surveillance and monitoring of high-risk individuals. Swab collection and mass testing of high risk groups has started in earnest.

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Still, Nepal’s lack of preparedness to fight public health emergencies has been similar to the apathy shown about enforcing building codes and having a rescue and relief strategy in place for future mega-earthquakes.

It took the devastating 2015 earthquake to finally push the policymakers to develop the Disaster Risk and Management Act in 2017 – more than five years after it was languishing in the legislature. Unlike the Natural Calamity Act 1982 that is centred on the relief, the new Act listed 22 kinds of disasters in Nepal and it focuses on preparedness. Epidemics however have been categorised under ‘non-disaster’ in the new Act.

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Epidemics has been lumped together with famine, fire, pest or micro-bacterial attack, industrial accident, toxic gas hazard, chemical radiation leakage, gas explosion, toxic food intake, environmental pollution, deforestation, physical infrastructure damage and accidents during disaster relief.

“Placing snakebites and outbreaks together itself shows that we haven’t really understood what an epidemic means. There is a huge difference in how we have to deal with them,” says Baburam Marasini, former head of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division.

The emergence of COVID-19 on top of the reoccurrence of pre-existing diseases mean countries need health institutions with medical staff equipped to deal with epidemics, research wing to undertake new studies on emerging diseases, and a strong system that can take immediate steps to control spread of a contagion.

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“We need to make laws taking infectious diseases into account, strengthen local infrastructure as well as increase capacity of the health sector,” Marasini says.  “We have to turn COVID-19 into an opportunity to build a new health structure and strengthen existing laws.”

Chronic lack of coordination and turf battles between the Department of Health Services, National Public Health Laboratory, Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, Epidemiology and Epidemic Management Section, Teku Hospital and Animal Disease Investigation and Control Division have added to the problem.

Says public health expert Madhav Chaulagain: “We are unprepared not just for new emerging epidemics but for the pre-existing diseases and seasonal disasters too.”

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Close to three years after Nepal adopted a decentralised federal structure, provincial governments have to fly COVID-19 samples to Kathmandu in lack of regional laboratories and hospitals specialising in infectious diseases.

The root of the problem is a culture not primed for prevention, but for cure. Also a ‘ke garne’ fatalistic attitude that tends to leave solving a known problem until after the disaster hits.

“We think about building modern hospitals to cure people. What developing countries like us should really be focusing on is prevention and preparedness,” says Gangalal Tuladhar. “We are lucky we still have time to prepare for COVID-19. It is time to work on prevention.”

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