Returnees may be taking coronavirus to rural Nepal

Nepalis crossing the border into the country through the Gauriphanta checkpost in Dhangadi, Far Western Nepal. Photos: DINESH KHABAR

A week before Nepal declared a nationwide lockdown to prevent imported COVID-19 cases, close to half a million Nepali migrant workers from India crossed the border into the country without any screening.  

Another 1.5 million people left Kathmandu Valley for their home districts as the government announced that all long-distance buses would stop plying after 6AM on 17 March.

Tens of thousands of Nepali workers driven out of their jobs in Indian cities are still trapped across the border in India – prevented from returning to their own country as the government tries to decide where to quarantine them.

Darchula police records show that 128, 022 people entered Nepal before the border was sealed, there now hundreds camping out on the banks of the Mahakali River. Health desks at border checkpoints were equipped only with thermometers. 

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“It is easier to track people travelling by air, since they are fewer and the airport has the equipment for thermal screening,” says Sher Bahadur Pun, infectious disease specialist at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Kathmandu. “Local governments should not waste any time to track down such individuals and place them under quarantine immediately.”

But that is easier said than done. The Health Ministry has not even been able to carry out contact tracing of the four Nepalis who flew into Kathmandu from the Gulf and Europe in March who have tested positive for coronavirus. Local governments in rural Nepal have no record of people who have come home, and are just starting to collect information of recent returnees. 

“If anyone is infected here, it is going to be a disaster. All we have are thermometers,” says Padam Giri, mayor of the Budhinanda municipality in Bajura, one of the remotest districts in northwestern Nepal. 

Four individuals who returned to Sunchhahari from India recently have been placed in isolation. Of the 46 people who arrived in Bajura from Mahendranagar after the lockdown, 16 are currently in quarantine at the district headquarters in Martadi.

Adds vice-chair of the Sunchhahari Rural Municipality in Rolpa Pabitra Gharti Magar: “So far no one has shown any symptoms, but if anyone did, we do not even have test kits.” 

The mountainous districts of western Nepal are considered to be the most vulnerable because every family has at least one worker in India who has now returned. It was also western Nepal which was worst hit in Nepal by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s as migrant males brought the disease home and spread it to their wives.

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Mahendra Bahadur Shah, chair of the Barekot Rural Municipality in Jajarkot admits that they failed to keep records of people returning from India because they did not initially take the pandemic seriously. Many migrant workers who entered Nepal though the Gaidachauki checkpoint before it was closed are from Bajhang, Doti, Baitadi and Dadeldhura districts.

Historically neglected by the central government in Kathmandu, western Nepal has chronic suffered food shortages and epidemics. People from the region make up the highest number of returnees. Even though only one case of the novel coronavirus has been confirmed in the region and is in hospital in Dhangadi, public health experts say the virus is out there.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have returned to western Nepal from Maharastra, Delhi and Bihar, which are the hardest-hit COVID-19 states in India. The one case in Dhangadi is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Bikash Gauchan, medical director at Bayalpata Hospital in Achham.

Bayalpata has set up a fever clinic, and 10 isolation beds have been added. The hospital has a stock of 20 precious personal protection equipment, and is producing masks locally for staff. Municipalities, district police offices and hospitals are all on red alert for a possible outbreak of COVID-19 in the region. 

Adds Gauchan: “We have a few ventilators in the entire western Nepal, and a limited stock of oxygen. We will not be able to do anything if the situation is to turn for worse, but if we contact traced and isolated possibly infected people we might be able to buy some time.” 

Back in Kathmandu, Sher Bahadur Pun at the Teku hospital says the returnees might have already had extensive interaction with their family members and hence need to be isolated and placed under home quarantine.

"Even if only one person is infected, who may or may not have a symptom, there is a high chance that the pandemic will spread across the village where there is a lack of reliable healthcare services and people are not aware that they need visit the doctor even if they have a slight fever,” Pun says.

Among the general public, there is now a sense of panic, and migrant returnees are being stigmatised, turning villagers against each other. Even people who die of other causes are rumoured to have died of the coronavirus. Public health experts want greater public awareness, physical distancing and expanding the so far limited testing for COVID-19.

Warns Pun: “If the coronavirus has entered the country unchecked through the border, then we could have a ticking time bomb in our hands.”