Failed strategyThe government seems to have forgotten why a lockdown was enforced in the first place.
Many countries around the world have enacted lockdowns or distancing measures of some form. The purpose, of course, is two-fold. One is to stagger the number of infected persons at any given time so that public health facilities—such as quarantine and diagnostic centres—and life-saving facilities—such as ICUs, ventilators and qualified medical professionals—are not overwhelmed. The other is to use the additional time afforded by distancing to ramp up said facilities wherever they are lacking.
But for some reason, this simple fact seems to have eluded the concerned who are in charge of Nepal’s Covid-19 response. To be sure, Nepal is not a rich country. As such, it was never expected that the country would be ready to face a massive peak in cases, something even high-income countries such as the US (with a ventilator bank and a previously functioning epidemic response office) has been unable to effectively manage. But this is exactly why a lockdown seemed like a good idea, to buy the government some time.
The expectation was there for the federal government to coordinate with provincial and local authorities, divert funds and keep a stock of the minimum necessary medical equipment and food on hand. Also, taking a cue from efforts in other countries, charting their course of action and analysing the eventual outcome, the government should have coordinated to plan for enough trained medical personnel and isolation facilities, in the least.
Now, as the Health Ministry itself expects cases to rise to 1,000 in a week, and 2,000 in 10 days, the scale of the government’s failure has become clear. It is not that the cases would not rise, the lockdowns cannot continue on perpetually. But since the measures were announced nearly 60 days ago, the government has barely increased its capacity to test a meaningful number of the population, let alone scale up required quarantine and isolation facilities. The result has been extremely distressing.
Two have lost their lives directly to the novel coronavirus. One of them was a woman who had recently given birth. By her husband’s account, the patient had to wait seven hours for an ambulance to arrive, even as her condition deteriorated. Alarmingly, there have been several instances reported of people being refused ambulance service, due to the drivers’ fear of being infected by Covid-19. If private personnel are reluctant to shoulder the burden of providing such services, the government in its power must temporarily take control of facilities; the important thing is the maximum utilisation of all available resources to fight Covid-19, while not disrupting regular emergency services.
Another worrying aspect has been the collateral damage due to the government’s mismanagement. While the official fatality count may only be two, there are cases like that of Bishnu Prasad Neyopane, a migrant worker who succumbed to health complications in Kuwait while desperately waiting—jobless and low on money—for the government to repatriate him and others like himself. If the forced exile of the thousands of migrant workers continues for long, the government may have to add more misery and death to its list of failures.
Here, the government claims that it lacks the quarantine facilities to bring all Nepalis wanting to return home. In that, it is right. Yet, it is the government itself that has allowed this situation to develop. It has had nearly two months to plan for the arrival of global evacuees, but the quarantine facilities currently available are not even good enough to stem infections from transferring into the community. It has come to light that locals in Province 5 have had to arrange for, and personally take, food for their relatives in quarantine. There have been cases of people being infected when visiting such relatives, an embarrassing development.
The only thing that the government has been able to do during this lockdown period is to make a fool of itself: it managed to recommend and repeal two anti-democratic ordinances, allow for unnecessary movement during the lockdown, and even allowed community transmission of the novel coronavirus. It seems to have forgotten the two reasons the lockdown was actually hoping to achieve.