Crossborder virus and Nepali migrant workers

The COVID-19 epidemic has hit countries where millions of Nepalis work

Nepal’s remittance-based economy has always been vulnerable to international upheavals like tension in West Asia, or economic downturn in Malaysia or Korea. An unexpected threat is the COVID-19 epidemic affecting countries where Nepali overseas workers are based.

The country with the second-largest burden of disease outside China is South Korea where there are about 40,000 Nepali workers. Of the 14 new cases of COVID-19 detected in the UAE this week, two were Nepalis. There are about 200,000 Nepali workers in the Emirates.

Qatar also has about 400,000 Nepali workers, and the country has now temporarily banned workers from Nepal and other countries. Qatar has so far detected 15 infected individuals. Cases have also been diagnosed in other West Asian countries with sizeable Nepali working populations: Bahrain (109), Kuwait (65), Oman (18) and Saudi Arabia (15).

Nepali and Indian migrants watch a Bollywood movie inside their camp. Photo: PATTABI RAMAN

Last week Kuwait imposed travel bans on Nepalis, and last week 30 Nepali workers en route to Bahrain were returned from the UAE to Nepal.

Public health experts say that workers are vulnerable because just one asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus can spread it to other workers living in crowded dorms. Some years, up to 1,000 Nepali workers in the Gulf and Malaysia have died, and this grim statistic could see an increase if the epidemic spreads.

“There is no evidence yet that COVID-19 is present in the work camps, but all it takes is one infected individual to spread it among others, so they would need to be tested, and if they come out positive may have to be isolated,” says Sameer M Dixit, a scientist at the at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal. “Nepal itself may have infected people who are not diagnosed.”

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is another coronavirus epidemic in West Asia which has killed 855 and infected 2,500 people in the past eight years. Adds Dixit: “It is a pure miracle that MERS did not end up affecting Nepalis even though there was a much higher case-fatality rate of 34% compared to COVID-19.”

The epicentre of the Korea outbreak is the city of Daegu which has many Nepali workers. There have been over 7,100 cases detected, and 50 deaths so far, but the Korean public health system has made sure that the disease is contained, and Nepalis there say they feel safe.

‘Even foreigners living here illegally or without visas can get a free test without any questions,’ reads a Public Service Announcement by the South Korean government.

"Things are pretty normal around here," a Nepali worker who did not want to be named told us by phone. "Awareness about precautions is high among workers, and we are frequently updated by official announcements.” Nepali workers going to Korea are on a government-to-government Employment Permit Scheme (EPS) and are required to pass a Korean language test, which means they can understand the COVID-19 updates.

Nepali organisations like the Korea Sachetana Group are also active on social media, to share information and support fellow Nepalis. "Recently we arranged for masks for Nepalis who could not find them on the market,” the worker said.

Another Nepali worker said his family back in Nepal was more worried than he was because they did not know about Korea’s strong health infrastructure. “In the media, they only hear about the infection rates and deaths going up,” he said.

However, Nepali workers have been affected by a more general slowdown of the Korean economy, which depends on raw materials from China. Another Nepali at a small manufacturing firm says: “My work hours have been reduced, and I cannot do overtime anymore, I just earn my basic salary. But I am luckier than others who have been asked to stay home.”

The economic impact of COVID-19 is also felt back home, where the new batch of workers who completed the rigorous selection process for employment in Korea through the EPS have been asked to put off their departure until further notice. The same now applies for workers going to Qatar.

In the UAE, one Nepali worker is impressed with the strict precautions taken by the authorities there to contain the virus. “Sanitisers are available everywhere, and medical checks are conducted frequently, with quarantine facilities. And they do not distinguish between nationalities and legal status of individuals."

With tumbling oil prices, civil aviation has been affected globally, and Nepalis employed in the tourism sector and in airport ground handling, airline food preparation, customer service and air crews could take a hit.

Workers talk of a visible slowdown in otherwise bustling Dubai. Occupancy rates in hotels are down, as are room rates. Malls and restaurants have fewer customers, and schools have been shut for four weeks.

Upasana Khadka


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