Government focuses on Nepalis in Hubei, but travellers from rest of China are neither screened nor quarantinedThree health workers screening hundreds of passengers at TIA is a tough ask, chief doctor says
The government plans to evacuate citizens from China’s Hubei, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, but Nepalis from the rest of the country are already returning home on their own, that too in hordes. However, the country’s only international airport neither quarantines nor screens them or anyone else returning from China.
As health experts express concern about the lack of a quarantine facility in the country, and the risk of virus spreading, the government is still undecided on where Nepali evacuees will be isolated after they are brought to Kathmandu.
Dr Bibek Kumar Lal, director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said people returning from China are at high risk and that they need to be quarantined for their own safety as well as that of other people. "But many seem to be going home and we can’t trace them,” said Lal.
Nepal’s approach to the situation has been different from that of other countries. Governments around the world are isolating returnees from China for at least 14 days to ensure they do not spread the nCoV-2019 strain of the virus, which has already killed 361 and infected over 17,000 worldwide.
"The government is yet to put a proper plan to quarantine people coming from China, except for those it plans to evacuate itself,” said Dr Nishant Thakur, who leads a 10-member team of health workers manning the Tribhuvan International Airport’s health desk in shifts. There are only three people at the desk at one time, screening hundreds of passengers.
"Nepalis are returning from China on their own and those who do not have a fever or influenza-like symptoms are going home straight from the airport," said Thakur.
Currently, six Chinese carriers—Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Sichuan Airlines, Cathy Dragon and Tibet Airlines—connect Kathmandu with China. Neither the health desk nor the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal maintains records of passengers.
"People are coming to Nepal every day from China, and we do not know where all they are going and who they are meeting," an official at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, told the Post on a condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. "Not only those returning from Hubei but all those coming from entire China should be treated as a high-risk group."
According to Thakur, his desk refers passengers with fever or influenza-like symptoms to Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Hospital, Teku, the designated primary hospital for cases. Dr Basudev Pandey, director at the Teku hospital, confirmed to the Post that the airport health desk referred ‘some people’, including one Chinese to the hospital. "But all were discharged after they tested negative," said Pandey. "We have asked those who came to our hospital to contact us if they develop influenza-like symptoms."
Officials at the Teku hospital, however, said some of the people returning from China have been visiting the hospital on their own volition, but none has been admitted. "We have vacated an entire ward to isolate suspected cases, but no one wants to stay there,” said Dr Anup Bastola, spokesperson for the hospital. "We give them our contact numbers, counsel them and ask them to come to the hospital immediately if they develop influenza-like symptoms."
Meanwhile, the government has formed a committee to find a place to quarantine Nepali evacuees from Hubei, by Tuesday. Though officials have hinted the government could seek assistance from the Nepali Army, the force said it hasn’t received any request.
"If the government asks us to explore options, we will do it,” said Brigadier General Bigyan Dev Pandey, spokesperson for Nepal Army. “But the government has not given us any directions. If we are asked, we will make arrangements, but we need some safety measures provided to us.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of July 3, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 213 countries and infected more than 10,984,735 people with 524,036 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 627,168 with 18,225 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 217,809 confirmed cases with 4,473 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 15,259 cases with 32 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.