Can a developing country ‘build back better’?

Researcher Sijal Pokhrel.

Globally there are signs that some countries are taking policy decisions that will advance sustainable development post-Covid-19, including the United States under the new Biden administration, but as a non-expert I feel pretty confident to say the evidence is inconclusive that the world will be on a greener path.

So given how hard it seems to be for rich countries to turn that corner, it seems unlikely that a ‘developing’ country like Nepal could make it happen. Although it was progressing before the pandemic, the challenges were enormous and included climate change (evidenced by melting glaciers) high unemployment that was sending more and more young people abroad to find work, and stalled progress in terms of mother and child health after decades of impressive results.

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Childhood: another casualty of Covid-19

Girl facilitators in a meeting organised by UNFPA in Udaypur District. ©UNFPA.

Child marriage has risen in many countries since the world started locking down earlier this year. In fact, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is predicting that if conditions don’t change, the pandemic will contribute to an additional 13 million marriages of children (mostly under 18) in the next decade.

The causes of child marriage are many and complex — economic, social and cultural. In Nepal, girls are often seen as a burden: raised by their parents only to be sent away to live with their husband’s family, and on top of that a girl is usually expected to carry with her a dowry for the groom’s family, which can amount to a huge amount of cash and goods, big enough to put her family in debt for many years.

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Premature births, stillbirths rise in Nepal during pandemic — Lancet

A pregnant woman undergoes a checkup at Baitadi District Hospital in June 2020 © Ganesh Shahi/ UNFPA.

This article was published in Nepali Times online, 14 August 2020.

A report published online in the journal The Lancet Global Health this week revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused 50% fewer women in Nepal than usual to give birth in hospitals, resulting in higher risks for premature births, stillborn deliveries and newborn deaths.

The study, conducted in nine hospitals across Nepal found that the stillbirth rate at hospitals and birthing centres increased from 14 per 1,000 before the lockdown to 21, and the neonatal mortality increased from 13 per 1,000 livebirths to 40.

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Nepal’s labour migration trap

Malaysia-bound migrant workers at a Kathmandu-based facility, where their passports and fingerprints are scanned for Immigration and Security Clearance. ©Nepali Times

Experiences from other Asian countries show that people who have gone abroad to work can be reintegrated into the economies of their home countries but it’s a complex process that requires government leadership.

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Fears for maternal health rise in Nepal with coronavirus

A woman sits with her baby outside her shop in the city of Bhaktapur near Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, in June 2014. The government says fewer women are giving birth in health facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. (Navesh Chitrakar/REUTERS)

Researching this article for The New Humanitarian it became clearer than ever that the status of maternal health in Nepal is cloudy at the best of times since accurate data is unavailable. In the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s really a guess: everyone assumes it’s getting worse but no one is sure. The local office of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) was supposed to start an assessment with the Government of Nepal late in June but it has yet to begin. Read on:

As home births rise in Nepal, so do fears for maternal health

Home births are rising in Nepal as fewer pregnant women visit hospitals, fuelling fears that the coronavirus pandemic could reverse years of progress on maternal health in the South Asian nation.

The government says less than half of pregnancies are now taking place in health facilities, compared with about 70 percent before coronavirus lockdowns began in March. A separate survey of health facilities across Nepal, conducted by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in April, found that visits by pregnant women had dropped as much as 50 percent.

In June, Nirmala Joshi, 24, walked two hours to her nearest hospital in Baitadi, a mountainous district in Nepal’s remote far west, for her first prenatal check-up.

Read the full article.

Don’t mourn the death of internationalism — look harder

A shorter version of this article was published in the Nepali Times, but this one includes the role of the media, a point I had to cut from the published version because it was too long. Please let me know if you agree.

© Diwakar Chettri

COVID-19 is laying waste to international cooperation as well as health systems. Countries have retreated into themselves, barring makers of medical equipment from exporting goods and in some cases hijacking shipments en route to other countries. The Trump administration has exited the World Health Organization (WHO) and is leading an attack on the organisation’s credibility. Internationalism is on its deathbed.  

Or is it?

It’s a conclusion you can easily draw from media reports, which thrive on drama and conflict. “During this global pandemic there’s been precious little sign of intergovernmental collaboration and collective leadership. Instead the worldwide response has been characterized by national self-interest, mutual suspicion and recrimination,” intoned Stephen Sackur, host of BBC’s HardTalk, while interviewing former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband recently.

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Covid-19 cases soar in Nepal as migrant workers return from India

People returning from India, line up at the border point in Birgunj, on Wednesday, 27 May 2020. Photo: Ram Sarraf/THT

The wait-and-see is over. Many of us living in Kathmandu have speculated during the past four months about where and when multiple cases of Covid-19 would finally appear after Nepal confirmed its first infection on 23 January, a student from from the disease’s epicentre in Wuhan. Small numbers of infected people have been sneaking across the Indian border despite it being closed since 24 March, but this week the trickle became a surge.

As many as 7,500 people are now crossing into Nepal daily, according to media reports. Some are not being screened for the coronavirus or put into quarantine, and of those who are being confined, some say conditions are not safe or comfortable and that they are not being provided food.

The returnees are some of the roughly 2 million Nepalis forced to migrate to India for months and even years at a time because they can’t earn livelihoods at home. Many are daily wage earners, whose work dried up soon after India went into lockdown on 24 March and have been making their way homeward ever since. Some have been forced to wait for weeks at the Indian border.

‘We have failed’ new mothers

Members of a mothers group in Banke district, Nepal, 2018. © Marty Logan

When will a Nepali leader apologise for the 1,200-plus women who die giving birth yearly?

The headline of this story refers to Nepal Prime Minister KP Oli, who a couple of weeks ago admitted in Parliament that his government had failed to prevent COVID-19 deaths. (As I write this Nepal has four COVID deaths). When the article was published on the Nepali Times website the headline was changed, removing that point. Regardless, too many women, and other Nepalis, continue dying because of the broken health system.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Nepal’s first COVID-19 death was that of a new mother. It was startling to learn that Prime Minister Oli admitted in Parliament on Tuesday that Nepal’s two coronavirus deaths to date represent a failure of his government. This raises the question: when will a leader apologise for the more than 1,200 women who die every year giving birth? Continue reading

Covid-19 lockdown stretching small-scale relief efforts in Nepal

Covid_fundraising_Workers at KAVACH who usually produce motorcycle clothing prepare PPEs ©KAVACH

Women wearing personal protective equipment make PPEs for front-line workers in Nepal at KAVACH, a maker of motorcycle gear that has completely refocused its production line to help make up the shortage of medical equipment during the pandemic. ©KAVACH

This article was published on nepalitimes.com on 24 April as Helping the helpless during lockdown. It features six organisations that are providing food and other essential items, mainly to the poorest of the poor. I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, more groups in Nepal also contributing in this way. It is a bright spot in a gloomy situation as the country is far from prepared for a major outbreak of the Coronavirus.


Raj Kumar Mahato launched the Covid-19 relief campaign of BHORE with Rs200,000 from his own pocket but doesn’t know where the NGO will find money to continue providing essential items for the ultra-poor, Nita Raut has spent all but Rs4,500 of the Rs78,000 she raised and says she will donate her own salary if necessary to provide food to Kathmandu’s poorest and Sano Paila, an NGO, is dipping into its savings to continue relief work in the eastern Terai.

Budgets of small organisations providing relief to needy people in Nepal are being squeezed dry as the lockdown continues but all of them say they are determined to keep working.

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Shape up the lockdown in Nepal

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My local market in Kathmandu on 17 April. © Marty Logan

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.

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