Karnali’s Covid blues

All photos and infographics courtesy of: MERCY CORPS

The news of Covid infections in Karnali do not readily reach the capital. But remote districts in this far-flung region have some of the highest coronavirus fatality rates in the country.

There are multiple factors involved: poverty, limited health and transport infrastructure, shortage of medical staff, lack of testing, and family members returning from India. People in the remote mountains of this historically neglected region now also have to survive on limited food.

A recent survey in outback communities of Karnali province shows that the most serious socio-economic impact of the pandemic has been on access to food – a full one-third of households surveyed reported not having enough food. Another 19% said they were even heavier in debt, and 14% lost their livelihood.

To be sure, the Karnali has suffered chronic food insecurity even before the pandemic, and almost every household has at least one member working in cities or in India. But the Covid crisis has made it worse. 

The survey was conducted among 395 people across 21 Karnali municipalities by USAID BHAKARI program implemented by the global humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps with an aim to improve food security in the region. Ten per cent of those polled were people with disabilities.

Some 78% of those surveyed said they had to change their diet and as high as 90% reported not having money to buy food, 38% switched to cheaper food items while 16% of the households resorted to prioritising children over adults with limited meals. Another 14% said they reduced the size of meal portions, 13% reduced the number of meals per day. 

These figures may lead to a long-term impact on the physical and mental growth of children. The coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdowns have pushed millions of Nepalis back below the poverty line leading to an epidemic of childhood malnutrition.

“The impact of drought and the second wave are significant in the vulnerable communities in Karnali province, further increasing the food crisis in the region. We have reached a critical point,” says Yugdeep Thapa of Mercy Corps. 

Women and people with disabilities in particular have faced added challenges in the past 18 months since the outbreak of Covid-19. Of the total women surveyed, 67% are not getting access to hygiene products ranging from soap and sanitisers to menstrual pads. Limited access to health services due to lockdown-induced restrictions meant that 45% of the women couldn’t visit a health post or hospitals for reproductive health services. 

There have been a slew of reports about an increase in domestic and sexual violence across the country during the pandemic, with women and children in closer contact with their abusers for a longer period. The Mercy Corps study confirms this, with one-third of the women reporting an unsafe environment at home due to domestic violence. Another 28% said they had faced increased violence and abuse in the household. 

While telemedicine has been an effective tool to receive medical consultation regarding coronavirus and other health problems, here in the mountains of Karnali Province, a majority of families have had no knowledge of such services with 24% of women unaware of the general Covid related helpline.

Last winter’s drought added to the food insecurity. A quarter of those polled said they lost their entire year's harvest, and 89% said they were looking for work to sustain their livelihoods. Some 44% of respondents said they were farmers, 17% were daily wage earners and 21% had family members working abroad.

The contribution of remittance to household income is likely to increase as job losses have pushed a further 15% of people to migrate to India, many of them after returning home due to the Covid lockdowns there in 2020 and this year. 

Those who couldn’t afford foreign employment sold their livestock or property to feed their children during the pandemic. In fact, 57% of the respondents in the study said they had to sell livestock or borrow money. Less than 1% of those surveyed had a year's worth of food stock, 42% had enough food to last only three months at most.

Half of the participants in the survey have not received any social security allowance to tide them over the long months of the coronavirus crisis. Those who did spent it mostly on food, health care and education.

On the disaster front, 62% of the respondents had little to no information on preparedness even as the annual monsoon flooding season was approaching at the time of the survey. But among those who accessed some news, did it mostly via radio and mobile phones which local governments could use to disseminate essential information in the future.

Read Also: Covid-19 affecting food security in Nepal