Ease restrictions cautiouslyLet experts handle the situation instead of leaving the job to bureaucrats.
In seven days, the prohibitory order that is in effect in Kathmandu Valley and other Covid-19 hotspots will come to an end. The timeline is similar across the country. Epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors say a lockdown was unavoidable as the second wave took hold and, to a certain extent, it has helped break the chain of transmission, preventing the country from an even worse situation. But close to 50 days of stay-at-home orders, it’s time the government let the experts handle the situation and ease restrictions cautiously rather than leave the job to bureaucrats and security personnel.
Cautiously, because the situation we are in right now stems not just from the variants of concern in circulation, but primarily due to two underlying reasons—government inaction and public indifference. And we continue to pay the price as the coronavirus spreads in remote and rural parts of the country. While the positivity rate remains alarmingly high, the restrictions continue to aggravate our economic distress. But contrary to scientific guidelines, testing is increasingly on the decline. Polymerase chain reaction tests have almost halved, while antigen tests are nowhere near the daily target of 25,000 tests.
While a drop in hospital admissions at Covid-19 hotspots and recoveries offers some respite, we do not know the actual scale of the spread. But we know that restrictions are not a solution as the Oli administration continues to ignore the time-tested rules of the pandemic playbook. More people are dead and many more suffered as the second wave brought our health system to collapse. Still, it seems the mayhem and the tragedies that we endured in the last month and a half is not enough for the administration to respond and resolve our situation swiftly.
If the leadership has a plan, epidemiological data is a prerequisite to assess the situation before we start charting an exit strategy and preventing future waves. But without adequate testing, there is no evaluation of the severity of the spread, without which the government cannot make informed decisions to lift restrictions safely. The World Health Organisation recommends a 5 percent positive rate or lower for at least two weeks before modifying public health and social measures. Additionally, the UN body also recommends a decline in hospital and ICU admissions for at least two weeks, and that at least 80 percent of the cases are from contact lists that can be linked to identified clusters.
Various quarters have long confirmed that the government sits on granular data pertaining to Covid-19, including cluster heatmaps. The data is useless if it’s not used to communicate risks to the public or make informed decisions. It will not right the wrongs, but here’s an opportunity for the leadership to set aside everything and prioritise the pandemic for once. Life-saving vaccines are scarce resources, and it will take time before the government can secure enough doses to inoculate everyone eligible. But the government cannot continue to lock up citizens forever until the positive percent reaches a permissible limit, which calls for a massive social and behaviour change communication because we’ve already witnessed what lifting restrictions carelessly and letting everything run amok can do.
Therefore, adjusting social and public health measures is essential before easing restrictions, and we must implement this sooner for the pandemic impacts people disproportionately. The government must immediately bring public health experts and agencies aboard to draw an implementable plan to put the country back on track safely. It must ensure that a standard operating protocol is ensured at all contact points in public spaces and workplaces. Citizens also have an equally vital role to play when we gradually come out of the prohibitory orders, for our collective negligence has already killed thousands of people.
A future wave could only make our problems repeat themselves.