Nepal’s exit strategy

Sooner or later, governments around the world have to decide between economic survival and public health. The choice for politicians is between saving lives and livelihoods. Here in Nepal, no matter what the government thinks, the people voted with their feet leaving Kathmandu by the thousands this week.

As they piled into crowded buses, many said that if the virus does not kill, poverty will.

Yielding to public pressure, elected ruling party politicians have violated their own government’s lockdown rules to send thousands of constituents home from Kathmandu in buses this week. They had not shown as much concern about many others, including workers from India, who walked for days from Kathmandu in the past month after running out of cash and food.

Nepal has been in complete lockdown now for a month, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases stands at 45 with no fatalities, and the government has started thinking of  an exit strategy. Prime Minister Oli hinted as much at a meeting with MPs on Wednesday. 

“We will keep the border with India sealed, but we can start the process of partial re-opening within Nepal,” Oli was quoted as saying.

An Indian worker from Bihar at a brick factory in Bhaktapur, which is partially open as the Nepal government decides on a phasewise reopening of the monthlong lockdown when it ends on 27 April. Photo: MONIKA DEUPALA

Just what form a loosening of the lockdown will take is not yet clear, but public health experts have advised against opening the borders and restarting international flights just yet. In addition, they say certain hotspots like Udaypur, Kailali and parts of western Nepal where there have been cases of community transmission may need to be isolated for at least two more weeks.

Sri Lanka, which has seen 254 confirmed cases and seven reported deaths has started lifting its COVID-19 curfew in two phases this week. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a staggered exit after the lockdown period ends on 3 May, and measures may include allowing travel within cities in the ‘green zone’, partial opening of government offices, mandatory masks and physical distancing, and a continued ban on flights and inter-state traffic. 

On Wednesday, India recorded the highest daily number of confirmed cases with 500, bringing the total to 15,859 and 652 deaths. In Indian states bordering Nepal, Uttar Pradesh has had 1,412 confirmed cases with 21 fatalities, while Bihar has recorded 126 cases and 2 deaths.

While these numbers are negligible compared to India’s vast population size, public health experts say it is proof that India’s strict and unprecedented lockdown is working, but warn against lifting it too soon. They are especially worried about urban hotspots in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Meanwhile, Bihar state has announced it will start reopening government offices this week, West Bengal is opening agriculture, construction, IT and industries. Kerala has even allowed restaurants to reopen, and let city buses and industries run. 

What India does has a direct bearing on Nepal because of the porous border and the movement of each others’ nationals across it despite it being sealed. Experts say Nepal’s phase-wise lifting of lockdown restrictions which are due to end 27 April, will necessarily have to mirror India re-opening. It is expected to entail limited local public transport with restrictions on passenger numbers, taxis with only one passenger within cities, no motorcycles, full mobility for agricultural activity and limited resumption of infrastructure, industry and commerce.

The government’s biggest challenge now will be to have a contingency plan in place in case Nepali migrant workers from Malaysia and the Gulf are sent home en masse. In the short-term massive quarantine capacity will be needed, and after that hundreds of thousands of new jobs need to be created in agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. Nepal’s travel trade employs a million people, and a strategy to reposition and kick-starting tourism will be critical.

Says Deepak Raj Joshi, former CEO of Nepal Tourism Board: “We have to plan so that in 2020 we survive, in 2021 we revive, and in 2022 we thrive.”

Read also: 

The India connection in Nepal’s COVID-19 status, Nepali Times

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