Test, test, testThe government needs to aggressively move forward with mass testing.
Nepal is in crisis. As it has been in much of the world, cases of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 continue to rise, even as the country’s lockdown extends beyond the 21-day transmission period. The reason for the jump in cases early this week is easy to see: The government has simply begun to test more.
The ‘Great Lockdown’ as the International Monetary Fund has begun to call it, has already begun to affect the lives of people globally. While businesses receive, or hope to receive, funds that can guarantee their survival until they are allowed to open again, people working in the tourism sector, migrant workers and daily wage labourers have especially been hit hard. On the one hand, they are being forced to risk their lives, and the lives of others, by working for a living through the lockdown. On the other, their prospect for survival does not look great without the work from which they eke out a living for them and their family.
To be sure, the novel coronavirus, if left unchecked, will bring death and devastation in a short span of time, the likes of which the world hasn’t witnessed since the Spanish flu in the 1920s. The infection rate from carriers has been found to be very high, SARS-CoV-2 has been known to be more robust at surviving outside the human body than most other viruses, and the death rate looks to be anywhere between 1 and 6 percent of the population. At the same time, with the global economy expecting to shrink by 3 percent in 2020—Nepal itself is expected to crash to a growth rate in the 1-3 percent range—the costs of an absolute lockdown will surely be devastating; some are predicting a recession to rival the Great Depression.
The only way forward, until the virus exhausts itself or an effective vaccine is found, is to stagger the number of infected in a region at any given time, whereas allowing some normalcy to return in the places clear of infections. And to achieve this, the government’s role is clear. The authorities concerned need to step up mass testing and contact tracing, so that the viral transmission can be kept in check and contained, while closing off areas that may be a hotbed for the spread of the virus.
Nepal’s recent case is a good example of the need for mass testing. For weeks and months, as the virus ravaged other parts of the world and many Nepali migrants lost their means to earn, the federal government remained unbothered. Even when a closing of the borders and a domestic lockdown was imposed, those to cross the land and air borders last were not forced into a strict quarantine. Those that were, like in the two-week mandatory quarantine in Rautahat, were allowed to leave isolation centres without being tested for the disease.
The recent case of two confirmed and one potential infection at Sun City Apartments in Kathmandu shows how lax the government has been. The infected persons were found to have returned from the United Kingdom on March 18, and were not completely isolated. They were tested, and found to be positive for carrying an active infection, more than 21 days after they left the UK. What this means is that either the virus has a way of continuing to survive in an active state for longer than previously thought, or that cases of local transmission have increased.
As the weeks carry on, the need to open up more and more of the economy will not just be a choice, but a compulsion. When that occurs, Nepal’s best-case scenario is to be thoroughly prepared for another spike in cases to treat effectively. For this to happen, the government needs to use the opportunity this lockdown affords to move for mass testing, and well as thoroughly tracing all contacts any and all infected persons have had in the past few months.