Nepal's approach to the risk of globalised epidemics is troublingThe lackadaisical approach goes against common sense, and will prove costly.
Recently, a tourist from Wuhan in China was hospitalised in Thailand, after the visitor was found to carry a new strain of the deadly coronavirus. Following the incident, the World Health Organisation released a notice to all member countries to be aware of the potential rapid spread of the virus due to air travel. Such guidelines and alerts from the WHO are routine. It is the nature of the modern globalised world, with travel and tourism creating wealth for many states and yet also bringing the risk of a global pandemic.
For now, this strain seems to have been fairly well contained. Apart from an outbreak in Wuhan itself, there have been only two reported cases outside China—the one in Thailand and another in Japan, and both affected tourists were from Wuhan itself. So, for the moment, while risks of a spread remain, a potential global outbreak seems to have been handled well.
Yet, the most worrisome aspect of this whole incident seems to be Nepal’s approach to preventative measures in public health. With the country attempting to attract 2 million tourists this year, and over 350,000 from China alone, one of the first things the government should have planned for is proper health posts at all points of entry and exit. Yet, reports suggest that the Health Ministry deployed ‘a medical doctor and paramedics’ to cover the health desk at Tribhuvan International Airport only after the notice from WHO came forth. Meaning, were it not for the WHO notice, the health desk at the airport would have been left empty—ahead of a massive planned surge in tourists from all over the world. In fact, the health desk had been unmanned for the longest time, citing inefficient staff transfers due to the federal system as the cause.
This lackadaisical approach to public health, especially during Visit Nepal Year, is extremely troubling. As a signatory to the International Health Regulations, Nepal is legally bound to set up health desks and strengthen them with equipment and trained human resources. Nepal's not fulfilling its duties to prevent the spread of a potential global pandemic, even as it calls for more tourists, is a serious concern. What’s more, the spread of diseases into the country will only make it more expensive and troubling for the country in the long run.
It is suspected that such an ad hoc response to dengue in the 2000s brought the virus into the country through tourist carriers. Since then, the government has been struggling to keep a check on the virus every year. In 2019 itself, dengue fever became an epidemic—claiming more than six lives and getting as many as 8,000 people across 56 districts hospitalised. Last year’s dengue case shows how ill-equipped Nepal is at handling communicable and deadly diseases once they are prevalent in the country. It is not a great ask for the government to prepare for prevention, diagnosis and quarantine measures so that disease transmission is stemmed at the entry points.
The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation spent over Rs53 million to inaugurate the tourism campaign, yet it seems surprising that it could not support the Health Ministry to plan and hire enough staff for the health desk at the airport, along with other transit points such as the border. The government should know that it’ll be a national embarrassment if Nepal is the weak link that starts a global disease outbreak. Moreover, it should only look at the bill from dengue, rotavirus and influenza strains from the past to know how expensive and troublesome the spread of communicable diseases within the country is. As the old proverb goes, prevention is better than cure.
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