Jabs for jobs
One month into the prohibitory orders, Kathmandu Valley has gone into stricter lockdown for another week, even as the infection rate and daily deaths fall slightly.
With almost every household affected one way or another by the virus, the public is aware that the restrictions are necessary, and that it was probably because of the lockdown that the curve is starting to flatten.
However, the government appears to be still using the 2020 playbook, depending solely on extended and stricter lockdowns to control the virus without actively conducting mass testing and vaccinations.
On Tuesday, a meeting of CDOs of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur decided to extend the lockdown till 3 June with jail sentences and hefty fines for flouting lockdown and safety protocols. They said the infection rate was not going down fast enough.
All that may have been understandable, but the order to completely shut grocery shops and department stores, which had been allowed to open till 10am, has been heavily criticised on social media. Ironically, the directive allows ‘shops selling vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy products, drinking water, and LPG gas’ to open till 9AM.
This led to panic buying on Wednesday and Thursday morning with the very crowds the Valley administrations were trying to avoid. The distinction between ‘grocery stores’ and shops that sell food items were contradictory and confusing. Even more absurd, the few home deliveries that were allowed will now be stopped from Friday.
There also appears to be an overlap in jurisdictions between elected Municipalities, and the district administration which is run by bureaucrats from the federal Home Ministry. This lack of coordination will need to be ironed out by the inter-ministerial CCMC which now has a new head, the well-regarded Nepal Army ex-general Balananda Sharma.
The main worry about the complete stoppage of home delivery and corner grocery shops means that ordinary people will be disproportionately impacted. The halt to construction activities also means that day wage earners, already suffering from lack of income, will be worse hit.
On Thursday, the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) in a press relese called on the government to undo the closure of grocery shops, saying it would impact low-income consumers. The FCCNI added that the government’s directive is impractical, given that vegetables, drinking water, and dairy products are also sold in convenience stores.
Nepal’s cautiously recovering economy, crippled by the lockdown in 2020, suffered an even more debilitating blow this year. Even as monetary aid and medical supplies begin to pour in from across the world, the vaccines that Nepalis need the most are not arriving anytime soon.
Nepal’s macro-economic parameters, including foreign exchange reserves, trade deficits, and lending rates had begun to improve in December 2020. Similarly, tourism and civil aviation had begun to revive, with trekking routes reopening and a close-to-record number of climbers on Himalayan peaks.
Last August as Nepal emerged from two lockdowns, the Nepal Rastra Bank estimated that it would take at least nine months for the country’s economy to bounce back. The economy is being buoyed only by remittances from overseas Nepalis that defied predictions, and actually grew by 16.5% in the last nine months compared to the same period in 2020.
But the second wave hit Nepal within seven months, and the hopes were dashed.
In 2020, there was at least some lip service to save lives and livelihoods, but the public’s attention this year has been on tests, emergency medical care, hospital beds and procuring enough oxygen for sick relatives. Most of the feeding centres and cash help to the poorest is being organised by citizen’s groups and not by the government.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s conversation on Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping brought the assurance of 1 million doses of the Sinopharm VeroCell vaccine, with the purchase of another 3 million doses in the pipeline.
"The president requested the Chinese government to facilitate the purchase of vaccines needed to save the lives of Nepalis," said Tika Dhakal, Information and Communication Expert at the president’s office.
President Bhandari also wrote to the Indian President to help get the release of at least the 1 million Covishield that Nepal has already paid for to start inoculating the 1.3 million people, most of them above 65, who are still waiting for the second dose of the AstraZeneca Covishield shots.
So far, 7.3% of Nepal’s eligible population has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 2.3% of Nepalis have been fully inoculated with either Covishield or VeroCell.
Activist groups and the Nepali diaspora in the US, where half of the adult population has now been fully vaccinated, have been urging the Biden administration to allocate vaccines to Nepal from its 60 million stockpile of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Last week, Nepal’s ambassador to the US Yuba Raj Khatiwada said that efforts to send 3-5 million AstraZeneca to Nepal were underway. However, most of the aid that has been sent to Nepal by the international community so far does not include vaccines, they have been medical equipment, oxygen cylinders, test kits and protective wear.
‘Many Nepalis have written to me asking why this (vaccine) situation is allowed to continue and asking what I am doing about it. Like you, I feel powerless,’ writes Professor Andrew J Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine Group that tested and produced the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In an in an exclusive op-ed for Nepali Times, he continues: ‘Since supply remains constrained, to save lives in the next few months, vaccine doses have to be redistributed to those at greatest risk, wherever they live.’
The government has said that the stricter lockdowns are necessary because the infection rate, while flattening, is not going down by as much as expected. On Thursday, 6,731 new cases were detected nationwide with 7,226 many recoveries. The total official death toll on Thursday, with 106 more deaths, reached 6,951. More than 3,700 people have died from Covid-19 in the past month — as many as the fatalities in the whole year till 1 April 2021.
The positivity rate during the first wave was 12%, while this year it has been 35-40% with parts of western Nepal even recording 80-90% — the highest rates in the world. While the virus appears to have reached even the remotest settlements in the mountains, district hospitals in Karnali and Sudur Paschim are reporting a slight drop in new Covid-19 patients.
Despite indications that cases are dropping from the peak, the CDOs are adamant that the restrictions should stay. Their conclusion is that the virus was spreading through crowded markets, which is why they have been further restricted. Kathmandu CDO Kali Rijal says depending on the infection rates in the coming week, lockdown rules may be eased after 3 June.