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Covid-19: Nepalis caught between a rock and a hard face

Joydeep Sen Gupta/New Delhi
Filed on May 13, 2021
A Nepali migrant worker arrived at the Tribhuvan International airport in Kathmandu. Photo: AFP

The raging contagion exposes infrastructure, health care woes amid political turmoil after PM Oli loses trust vote in a rudderless nation.


Arjun Magar Thapa, who hails from the lakeside resort town of Pokhara in western Nepal’s Kaski district and works as a delivery rider at a Nepali eatery at Satwa in Dubai, was planning to go on his biennial vacation in mid-May to get married to his childhood sweetheart.

Unfortunately, his long-awaited trip stands cancelled, as the UAE authorities have suspended all flights to Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from Wednesday (May 12) following an upsurge of lethal Covid-19 cases in these four south Asian nations.

Thapa, 26, hasn’t been home since May 2019, and he was eagerly looking forward to his vacation but the raging viral outbreak has put paid to his plans.

Covid-19: Nepalis caught between a rock and a hard face (https://www.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT28941513.JPEG)

“I was looking forward to having a gala time with my loved ones. I was planning this trip for the past so many months. However, destiny appeared to have other ideas,” a distraught Thapa told Khaleej Times over the phone from Dubai on a day the UAE celebrated Eid Al Fitr while complying with all precautionary norms.

Back in Thapa’s native Nepal, which has been reeling under the second wave of the contagion, his hapless compatriots are caught between a rock and a hard face.

Though the daily infection of SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, had hovered around 150 in early April, the situation has worsened in the past few weeks, as over 9,000 cases are being reported and more than 4,000 people have fallen prey to the contagion amid infrastructure and health care woes.

A lethal blow

Nepalese health officials pegged the current daily positivity rate this week at around 50 per cent, as one in every two persons are found to be infected.

Around 100,000 people are believed to be in-home isolation amid the looming spectre of more Covid-19-related deaths in the coming days, officials have warned.

The viral outbreak for the second year in a row couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the hapless people of a nation, whose fate is inextricably linked to fickle governance.

Odd jobs abroad?

Nepalese nationals' major source of sustenance has been to do odd jobs abroad in a remittance-driven closed and broken economy back home.

Consider the case of Arun Rai, 29, who had a horrible time in Qatar - his first overseas stint - as a security guard two years ago.

In his initial stint, Rai, who comes from Dharan in eastern Nepal, had paid an unscrupulous manpower agent Dh10,000 to bag a job of a security guard in Doha only to realise to his own peril that he was duped.

“I’m yet to repay the debt that I had run up for the Doha ‘job’. However, what choice do I’ve at home, where jobs are few and far between. I’ve pawned a portion of my ancestral farmland and taken out another Dh15,000 loan to pay an agent to secure a security guard’s job in Dubai for Dh800. However, as luck would have it, the flights have been cancelled because of the pandemic. I was slated to join work next week. Alas! That’s not to be. I’m not even sure, whether the agent can convince my employer to keep the job till flights resume. Else, I’d end up spend the rest of my life servicing my debts, even though I’ve no steady income to do so,” lamented Rai to over the phone from Dharan while sobbing disconsolately because of the turn of unfortunate events over which he has no control.

Deepening political turmoil

Nepal’s Covid-19 crisis has coincided with a deepening political turmoil that has been considered as one of the primary reasons for an unprecedented brain drain (see box), Rameshwar Nepal, a labour migrant expert told Khaleej Times.

“Unfortunately, lack of political stability has led to Nepalese migrant workers looking for greener pastures abroad,” Nepal added.

Sujit Kumar Shrestha, general secretary of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), an apex body of 854 manpower agencies in the country, agreed with Nepal’s assertions.

Alarming situation

The landlocked erstwhile Himalayan kingdom’s Covid-19 crisis is alarming, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, the United Nations (UN) resident coordinator in Nepal told the BBC earlier this week.

"We rank Nepal ninth among the 10 top countries as far as the daily increase in Covid-19 cases is concerned. Of all those top 10 countries, Nepal has the smallest population, but it has the highest Covid-19 case positivity rate," she had said.

Musical chair of governance?

To make matters worse, Nepal plunged into political turmoil after the country’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli was forced to step down following public outrage over his response to the lethal second wave of Covid-19. He quit after he lost a trust vote in Parliament on Monday. Oli needed at least 136 votes in the 275-member House of Representatives to ensure a majority and save his government. But he managed only 93 votes, as 124 members voted against him.

Nepal’s President Bidya Devi Bhandari has to give a call to form a new government in the fractured nation.

Vaccine woes

Nepal, which is a buffer state between two giant neighbours India and China, is also facing acute Covid-19 vaccination woes.

India had donated about a million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and Nepal secured doses from the global vaccine sharing programme Covax and also from China.

Altogether 2.1 million (m) people are believed to have received the jab and of them, an estimated 400,000 have received both doses.

Nepal is in limbo, as India has abruptly suspended the export of Covid-19 vaccines.

Kathmandu is looking towards China and Russia to come to its rescue. Beijing is willing to oblige Kathmandu, as India cedes geopolitical turf to China.

China comes to the rescue

China donated 400 oxygen cylinders, 160 oxygen concentrators, and 10 ventilators to Nepal on Tuesday.

Beijing is slated to donate 20,000 oxygen cylinders to Nepal, and 400 were a part of that package.

Lockdown in Kathmandu

A lockdown in the densely populated Kathmandu Valley -- home to around 2.5 (m) million people -- has been extended until May 27. Gatherings have been banned at party venues, and gatherings in private homes are capped at 10 people.

The ban on international flights has also been extended until May 31 -- although two flights per week are allowed between Kathmandu and the Indian capital, New Delhi under a "travel bubble" programme, according to Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority.

Rising death toll

On Tuesday, it reported 9,483 new cases and 225 virus-related fatalities, according to its health ministry -- the highest single-day death toll since the pandemic began.

And on Thursday, 214 fresh Covid-19-related deaths were reported.

While the case positivity rate was pegged at 45 per cent, amid fears of a linkage to the country’s second wave to the viral outbreak in India, which is the worst-affected nation in the world this year.

Nepal’s Covid-19 challenge is as daunting as scaling Mt Everest, the highest peak in the world, in its backyard.

Can Kathmandu pull it off? And the answer may not be blowing in the wind.





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