Concern in China over Nepal Covid-19 surge

China’s new batch of medical supplies for Nepal published in Global Times.

The Covid-19 second wave ravaging Nepal has raised concern in China’s social media platform Weibo, and prompted some to post appeals for the government to help the neighbouring country in its time of need.

The coronavirus surge sweeping India and Nepal has been creating a significant buzz on China’s social media platforms, with comments expressing compassion as well as nationalistic outbursts at the situation in India. 

Recent news that China was sending a new consignment of medical equipment to Nepal, as well as posts about mismanagement of the Covid-19 surge in India has sparked discussion among the Chinese netizens. 

The news of the steep rise in cases in Nepal started being reported in the western media mostly after Covid-19 cases were detected at Mt Everest Base Camp. It was only in the past week that the alarming news from Nepal started gaining traction here.

The posts appear to reflect residual nationalism from the India-China border conflagration last year, and geopolitical tension between the two Asian giants -- which could not be more different in the way they have tackled the pandemic.

One of the most prominent hashtags,  #尼泊尔疫情为何迅速恶化 (translation: ‘Why the pandemic is rapidly worsening in Nepal’) gained 55 million engagements in 24 hours this week. Even though the hashtag concerns Nepal, most of the posts and replies using it centred around India’s failure to contain the second wave. 

Some deliberately derogatory posts that seemed to rejoice in India’s tragedy were taken down after outrage on social media. One post tagging ‘China Lighting a Fire’ showing China’s rocket launch last week side-by-side with ‘India Lighting a Fire’ showing a mass-cremation site in Delhi drew so much backlash from Weibo users inside and outside China that it was deleted.

The post was traced to the official Weibo account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which is under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.  

The topic then shifted focus as Chinese netizens worried that Nepal’s Covid-19 spread and response will become similar as that in India. 

Indeed, the hashtag #尼泊尔是否变成下一个印度 (translation: “Will Nepal become the next India’) got over 80 million engagements and counting this week. On 8 May, Toutiao News, a major information portal followed the popularity of the hashtag and ran a rather unusual week-long poll asking Chinese netizens' opinion on whether ‘Nepal will become the next India’. 

More than 85% agreed with this possibility, and some even feared that the spread of the pandemic in Nepal could be worse than in India. While most posts have lumped Nepal and India together on the Covid-19 theme, others have drawn attention to the Nepal-China friendship and urged the Chinese government to help Nepal with emergency supplies.

‘Isn’t Nepal a good friend of China? All efforts should be made to help them,’ said one post, while some others asked that immediate support be rushed to China’s ‘good neighbour’. 

Just as the western media’s concern about Nepal’s pandemic is largely limited to Mt Everest, the Chinese social media focus is India-centered. 

Global Times, China’s state-affiliated media, even ran a story highlighting how Chinese enterprises in Nepal were trying to prevent Nepal from becoming a ‘mini India’.  

China has offered assistance to India to respond to the pandemic, and after a statement of concern by Foreign Minister Wang Yi with an expression of support, many Chinese social media users have urged similar help for Nepal. 

Indeed, Beijing seems to be responding. A Nepal Airlines plane is flying to Beijing on Monday night to bring China’s offer of 20,000 oxygen cylinders and other medical essentials, as Nepal’s hospitals struggle to cope with the seriously ill. A similar flight last month brought back 800,000 doses of the Chinese VeroCell vaccine donated by China.

Nepal’s vaccination program has ground to a halt after an early promising start after India stopped further export of the Covishield AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute even though Nepal had already paid for 2 million doses.

Social media posts here quote the Chinese saying ‘A close friend is better than a distant relative’, but others have also urged Nepal to improve its governance and delivery instead of just depending on the outside world for help.

One Chinese social media post notes: ‘The spread of Covid-19 will make China a ‘thin horse’ so it should not just give assistance for free.” The growing debate on China’s foreign assistance, both at policy-making level and on social media, hints that countries like Nepal should focus more on early preparedness and control as most other countries grapple with their own Covid-19 crisis. 

Aneka Rebecca Rajbhandari studies political science at Peking University. Raunab Singh Khatri is a graduate student in economics at Yenching Academy of Peking University.