Political unrest likely to trigger surge in new coronavirus cases across the countryPublic health experts warn of rapid spread of infection like in the US if risks of transmission are overlooked during protests.
Of the 155,017 swab samples tested in the last 22 days, 23,088 have tested positive for coronavirus in the country. This means that 15 out of every 100 people who get tested for the disease are getting positive results—a test positivity rate of 15 percent.
A test positivity rate this high is not good news as the government’s focus has shifted to politics from the fight against the pandemic, public health experts say warning that coronavirus spread has not slowed down.
“What has slowed down is the testing,” said Dr Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division. “The government is not serious about containing the spread of infection. People are bound to suffer when the government and political parties prioritise control over state power, instead of control over the pandemic.”
According to Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, the higher the test positivity rates, the more likely that the transmission rate is high and more untested people with coronavirus are going around in the community. The World Health Organization says a test positivity rate below five percent should be achieved for a country to relax its virus containment measures.
But in Nepal, which has recorded a test positivity rate of 15 percent over the last 22 days, the test positivity rate is still more than three times the UN agency’s threshold of five percent. But almost all measures to contain the spread of the virus have been lifted.
All this is happening at a time when various political parties have threatened to take to the streets to protest Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve the House of Representatives.
After the latest political developments, the country is likely to see more mass meetings and public gatherings. Meanwhile, people are not strictly following most safety measures, including the use of face masks and social distancing in public places. Also, with the dissolution of Parliament, authorities concerned aren’t accountable to anyone, experts say.
“At a time when all the state machinery, political parties and public should be focusing on containing the spread of infection, new political turmoil has created in the country,” Dr Sudha Sharma, former secretary for health told the Post. “Attention of the public has been diverted towards political things. New cases of coronavirus could spike in the coming days.”
The government’s handling of the pandemic has been poor from the very beginning. When it decided to enforce a lockdown starting March 24, with just two reported Covid-19, there were expectations that it would work seriously towards improving health infrastructures and curbing the spread of infections.
However, as new cases spiked, the government withdrew all containment measures and halted free testing and contact tracing, considered key to containing the pandemic.
Apart from this, the Ministry of Health and Population has been also including in the test figures tests done on people such as health workers, individuals who need to attend court hearings and government staffers serving at the Prime Minister’s residence—all of whom get tested regularly.
After the Health Ministry decided not to test the deceased to establish their cause of death, people dying in homes are being cremated without their kin knowing their infection status.
“At a time when all the strength of the country should be focussed on fighting the pandemic, we have started fighting within the party,” Dr Bikash Lamichhane, a public health expert, told the Post.
The World Health Organization in March said that the highest level of political commitment was needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic and a long list of countries were not showing “the level of political commitment” needed to match the level of threat the world faces.
It is not clear if Nepal is one of the countries on the list, but the ongoing political turmoil, and the government giving up containment measures indicate that the days ahead could be worse, according to experts.
“The number of daily positive cases jumped to over 200,000 in the United States due to the political turmoil there,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of the Clinical Research Unit at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, told the Post. “The coming days will be more challenging for us as well.”