Finally in the past two weeks Nepal has started testing larger numbers of people, using so-called ‘rapid diagnostic tests’, although the total is still less than 20,000. That is one of the few bright spots in the government’s response to the pandemic since the first case was confirmed here on 24 Jan. So far the country has been very lucky but it’s time to stop taking the good fortune for granted and get serious about the ongoing lockdown.
The following was published on the Nepali Times website on 17 April:
Shape up the lockdown in Nepal
Going through the motions to quarantine people or wearing masks haphazardly will not help to prevent a devastating outbreak
When I read a few days ago that China and India were willing to provide medical equipment and medicine to Nepal I did a double-take. Surely, this isn’t news, I thought — I’m certain that the giant neighbours would have responded positively to such a request a month, or even two months ago, when it was blatantly obvious that Nepal lacked masks, Covid-19 tests and other materials needed to prevent an outbreak. Of course, what did make it headline-worthy was that the recent inquiry had come from the Nepal Army.
I have no medical training, but given the utter failure of the government to react to the shortage in a timely manner, and to get the big things right more broadly, I think that the smaller ways in which we all react to the threat are going to take on a larger dimension. Yet what I’m seeing in my neighbourhood, and in the media, does not give me confidence.
In my local market, the pavement markings to indicate correct social distancing have all but faded away and whether people observe proper spacing seems dependent more on their attraction to a certain product than on any rule. When a pick-up truck loaded with huge, round lauka pulls up a crowd starts to gather, which a passing policeman seems somehow to miss.
It is positive to see that most people are wearing face masks, though some are too small to cover both mouth and nose, making them useless. Worryingly one seller, who is the hub of activity in a shop — weighing and bagging produce, taking money and making change — doesn’t bother to wear one.
Cricket and cards
Walking home I can empathise with the kids I see released for a few hours from lockdown out on their street playing cricket (although they shouldn’t be). But I get angry as I gaze aimlessly from a first-floor balcony one long afternoon and see a group of four neighbours across the street sitting in a circle playing cards.
Maybe it’s time that local leaders followed the example of mayors in Italy who amused people around the world a couple weeks ago when they took to social media — and in some cases to the streets — to excoriate their citizens who were not obeying the lockdown. It also reminds me of the Chinese official who at a press conference lambasted Italian officials themselves for not keeping people at home. ‘What are you thinking,’ he asked.
I recently read the story of a 30-year-old gym owner and long-distance cyclist in Canada, who met a friend who had recovered from the coronavirus. They chatted, being extra careful to maintain distance, yet the super-fit cyclist still fell sick, at one feverish stage passing out alone in his apartment. Recovering now, he was still sleeping 11-12 hours per night as his shattered body rejuvenated itself.
I believe that’s the scenario we should be preparing for — an illness so devastating that it can knock out the toughest among us — yet it appears that subconsciously many Nepalis, officials included, have internalized the notion that ‘it’s not going to happen here’. Or perhaps the relaxed approach results from ‘lockdown fatigue’ after more than three weeks of having our movements curtailed. If so, people will need to be inspired to carry on as the lockdown has now been till 27 April.
This is not to diminish the efforts of health workers and other frontline personnel who put themselves at heightened risk daily with scant support so that the rest of us don’t have to. And I am aware that abiding by the lockdown is extremely difficult for many people, including daily wage earners and suddenly unemployed migrants. In fact, I would argue that governments need to do more to ensure that their precarious situations do not worsen.
Going through the motions to prevent an outbreak is useless: we will not get a second chance to prevent an epidemic that could ravage the country. Now is when leaders need to step up and take charge to ensure that people are strictly adhering to the rules. I’m not confident they will, given reports of border points being opened post-lockdown to allow people to return home and of quarantine centres where patients are sharing beds and cigarettes, but it’s far past time to get serious.