An unequal world for migrant workersWhat migrants need most is comprehensive social protection which will strengthen their capacity to cope.
Four weeks into Nepal’s Covid-19 lockdown, my family and I are at home, catching up with long-lost friends online, finishing off the books we bought ages ago, and, every day, obsessively reading news reports and social media to try to understand this world-changing crisis. Like many readers of The Kathmandu Post, we are fortunate to have the comfort and cushion of being safe in our homes, free of hunger and poverty. Meanwhile, just outside our country’s border, thousands of our fellow citizens are trying desperately to get home.
On March 24, Nepal introduced a lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic; two days later, India followed suit. Since then, Nepal has extended its lockdown to April 27, and India until May 4. Meanwhile, 1,100 migrant workers from Baitadi, Bajhang and Darchula districts find themselves in quarantine camps in Dharchula in India’s Uttarakhand state, on the other side of the closed Mahakali river bridge. Their despair is heartbreaking.
That desperation drove 11 Nepali migrant workers to jump in the Mahakali on April 13 in an attempt to reach the Nepali side. Seven were captured by members of India’s border force, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), but four were successful, and Nepal’s Darchula administration has kept them under quarantine. Jeevan Damai, a Nepali citizen who has been held for over two weeks in Dharchula’s quarantine camp, said he called on the Government of Nepal to open the bridge and let them in. Like many other Nepali migrant labourers who work in India, he had been expecting to be with his family on the Nepali New Year’s Day, but instead, he had to spend it in the Indian camp, hundreds of kilometres away.
We have all seen the troubling images of the huge homeward exodus of migrant workers, both Indian and Nepali, that began when India locked down. This exodus is terrible proof of failed social protection systems, both in India and Nepal. As a society and as fellow humans, we see how greatly we have failed migrant workers when we hear them say, ‘We will die of hunger before we are killed by coronavirus’. There are already reports of a man dying on his journey home, owing to him falling off a suspension bridge in Dhading. We can call these workers brave, but in truth, they have no choice: it is a matter of survival.
In Dharchula’s quarantine camp, reports suggest that conditions are probably as good as can be expected, given the scale of the undertaking. The local administration and police have set up five areas to quarantine Nepali migrant workers, with medical inspections carried out every other day. The practice of social distancing is a priority overall, although limited resources and space mean it is difficult in practice. Entertainment sessions are provided, including awareness-raising on Covid-19, motivational talks, and singing Nepali songs and dancing. Understandably, however, the workers are adamant that they want to go home.
The NHPC Dhauliganga Power Station just outside Dharchula has taken on the responsibility of providing food, water, accommodation and medical services for the past 10 days to 336 migrant Nepali workers housed in a sports stadium and 32 more who are staying at Nigaalpani Fire Brigade. One of the Nepali workers, Gangaram Tamta, observed, ‘The Government of India has given us everything. We are getting everything so far; they are even making food for us. The only thing missing is that we want the bridge to be opened so that we can meet with our family members’.
The conservative approach taken by both India and Nepal in responding to the coronavirus pandemic is aimed at ‘flattening the curve’ of rates of infection and naturally focuses on precautionary measures to prevent infections spreading in areas with poor healthcare provision and weak infrastructure. What is urgently needed in both countries is direct economic support for those who need it most. As for the Nepalis who remain stranded across the border in the Indian camp, now that lockdown has been extended in both countries, it is time for the local government of Nepal’s Darchula district to make arrangements to accept the migrant workers and facilitate their journeys home without jeopardising the health of local populations.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, to which the Nepal government has committed, have the promise to ‘Leave no one behind’, and they have revived the global interest in inequalities and the role of social protection in promoting social inclusion. The Nepali men left behind at the Indian border whose return home will be dogged by economic uncertainty, and the unseen Nepali women who remain abroad carrying out essential but underpaid care work, need more than just emergency responses to a terrible pandemic. What they need most are comprehensive social protection mechanisms that will strengthen their capacity to cope with shocks and escape structural poverty traps. These policies will benefit not only them but all of Nepali society, even those of us who are already safely at home.
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Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of May 27, 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 210 countries and infected more than 5,684,795 people with 352,225 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 150,793 with 4,344 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 57,705 confirmed cases with 1,197 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 772 cases with four 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.