Unlocking into uncertaintyWe’re nowhere close to flattening the curve. This is not how we can return to normal.
Four months after the lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19, the Oli administration has lifted the lockdown from Tuesday midnight. According to the government spokesperson Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada, the decision follows recommendations from the Ministry of Health and Population which has been reporting a 'decline' in the daily number of coronavirus cases.
The new decision comes with restrictions to limit public gatherings after two decisions earlier this week to resume domestic and international flights and short-route public transportation services. The lifting of the lockdown has scrapped all restrictions in place for public and private vehicles, allows hotels and restaurants to take in customers, and has opened the country for trekking and mountaineering expeditions.
People and businesses are desperate for normalcy. Many have lost jobs, have been furloughed or seen pay cuts, and are burdened by mental fatigue and physical idleness that accompanied the stay-at-home orders. While the new decision was imperative, given the new normal as Nepal reels under deep recession, every step hereon needs to be taken with extreme caution as the looming danger could throw everything out of gear.
Restrictions, Khatiwada warned, could be imposed again depending on the Covid-19 situation. This is exactly what hits the public fear right in its heart. The lifting of the lockdown has been hurried and unplanned just as how it was relaxed last month. Mandatory precautionary measures and guidelines announced for business operations have either not been implemented or loosely followed as more and more people have come in contact with each other since the relaxation last month.
The World Health Organisation long warned against lifting lockdowns, saying countries could return to lockdowns and see a spike in cases if the transition was not managed 'extremely carefully'. In a virtual briefing in May, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had announced a series of steps needed to be followed before lifting the restrictions, such as contact tracing and health system preparedness.
Nepal continues to fail miserably on both ends. Testing and tracing as recommended by the UN body is yet to take off, and there are concerns about pending tests and whether the number of tests actually represents the number of people tested. While the ministry reports a decline in the number of daily new confirmed cases, there is no data in the public domain that records where and when the samples were collected. Since mid-May, the government has also stopped differentiating positive, negative and pending tests in its daily briefing.
Testing and tracing are crucial to bringing the pandemic to an end. To flatten the curve, Nepal must bring the curve of daily cases down to zero and although the number of new cases has gone down and is lower than the number of total cases, testing remains limited and tracing is still a far-fetched idea. The benchmark range for adequate testing, according to the UN body, is between 10 and 30 per confirmed cases in a country.
For now, we know the number of active cases, those in quarantine and those who have been discharged; but without increasing the number of tests, we will not know how many people are infected. And without this data, we will miss the opportunity to flatten the curve or grasp how the virus has spread if it has. This is not the way we can return to normal because lockdown or not, we have to live with the fact that as long as the virus is in circulation, we cannot rule out transmission or the uncertain impacts it could have.