Safe takeoffThe government must introduce stricter safety protocols even as it plans to resume scheduled domestic and international flight operations next month.
The Nepal government on Monday announced resuming international and domestic flights from August 17. Although almost 93 percent of the global population now lives under coronavirus-related travel restrictions, and around three billion people live in countries enforcing complete border closures to foreigners, the easing up of travel and border restrictions is getting more and more imminent. Japan resumed international flights partially in the last week of June. India is gearing up to restart international scheduled flights on selected routes, including Germany, France and the United States, on a case-to-case basis. Nepal's decision, therefore, does not come as a surprise. With the recent announcement, the country joins the ranks of several others that have come to a tacit understanding that there is no alternative to tackling the virus while keeping the economy afloat.
But the gradual relaxation of restrictions on economic and social activities should in no way mean the flouting of safety protocols. Rather, the situation demands adherence to stricter protocols. Minister for Law Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe on Monday said special health and safety protocols will be followed during flight operations but failed to elaborate on the details. Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, joint secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry, however, signalled that the protocols and other required measures for incoming flights were yet to be developed. This means that the government has much homework to do before it the flight operations resume.
It is not clear whether the government plans to set up quarantine and isolation centres for incoming passengers, as it will add to the demand for human and financial resources. At most, the government will keep incoming passengers in holding centres for up to a week before conducting polymerase reaction tests. We’re yet to see whether the government exhibits any prudence in handling large-scale operations with proper safety protocols in place this time around. As of now, it is just busy gloating over a reduced number of daily transmissions.
The reason why the daily average of infections is coming down could be due to the decrease in the number of people entering Nepal from India. But the fact that the government has gone back on its promise to conduct massive tests to identify cases means that the coronavirus transmission could be much bigger than what the government’s numbers say. Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal's claimed in mid-June that the number of tests would be raised to 10,000 daily starting June 29. Having revised the guidelines for conducting tests, what minister Dhakal is providing is just around 4,000 tests a day. It is this reduced number of tests which might have shown a reduction in the number of infections, whereas the reality might be otherwise.
The pandemic continues to upend business as well as daily activities the world over. We’re still months, if not years, away from mass availability of vaccines even if there is a major breakthrough in the invention of such shots. The light at the end of the tunnel is not in sight yet. But the government has at best been dishonest when it comes to informing citizens about the exact modus operandi of its fight against the pandemic. Meanwhile, citizens would do well to continue following safety protocols doggedly and not depend on the government as it keeps shifting the goalposts.