The year the government failed to save lives, control the Covid contagionThe government gave up key measures such as testing, contact tracing and isolating and left the people to fend for themselves amid a raging pandemic.
The year 2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic. Even though the first coronavirus case was reported in the country in the third week of January, Nepal woke up to Covid-19 a little later than other countries.
But as the year comes to an end, the virus has killed 1,847 and infected 260,059 people in the country.
The positivity rate—the percentage of those testing positive—stands above 10 percent as 2021 begins and officials at the Ministry of Health and Population are warning of a second wave of new infections in about two weeks.
Despite constant warnings from doctors and public health experts, the government, however, continued to downplay the virus threat, at times even the prime minister and ministers peddling mistruths and unscientific arguments.
“We made a lot of mistakes–knowingly and unknowingly,” said Dr Kedar Narshing KC, a senior chest physician.
But in Nepal, the focus of the government has shifted to staying in power, instead of saving lives. Public attention too has been diverted towards politics.
“People should take maximum precaution to save themselves from the risk of infection. Authorities concerned should not give up their prime responsibility of saving lives,” said KC.
The warning comes on the heels of two different coronavirus variants reported by South Africa and the UK which according to scientists have been associated with a higher viral load and also more infectious. There are also concerns if the vaccines currently being deployed or in development, will protect against the new variants.
Although the UK or the South African variant of the virus hasn’t been reported in Nepal so far, five people who returned from the United Kingdom and were in quarantine tested positive for Covid-19, raising fears that the highly infectious new variant of the coronavirus may have already entered Nepal.
Health officials say that samples from the UK arrivals need to be sent abroad to be tested for the UK variant of the virus, but officials are already expecting a second wave of infections in the country in the coming weeks, regardless of the spread of the new variant.
Political protests throughout the country, coupled with relaxation of all restrictions could lead the country into the second wave, officials say.
“We expect the number of new cases to rise after three weeks,” Dr Roshan Pokhrel, chief specialist at the Health Ministry, told the Post this week.
Although some experts argue that Nepal doesn’t have the “luxury” of a second wave—as the government hasn’t done anything to contain the spread of the infection, others believe that the first wave, which began in March and peaked in October with up to 5,743 cases reported in a single day, is coming to an end with 600 to 700 cases being reported across the country each day in the last few weeks.
Experts say that the government’s decision to halt free testing, and contact tracing while reopening the economy after the four month-long lockdown contributed to the surge in cases. Officials scrambled as demand for intensive care units and ventilators surged across the country.
“The risk of spread of new variants of the virus has increased, but we have no other option than repeating the same things: restriction, testing, tracing and isolating,” said Dr Mingmar Gyelgen Sherpa, former director-general at the Department of health Services. “Even if it cannot do much, the government should do things that can be done immediately such as arranging hospital beds, setting up quarantine and isolation facilities, increasing testing and contact tracing, arranging oxygen supply systems.”
But officials have been dismantling structures needed to quarantine travellers and isolate people who test positive for the virus. Quarantine facilities throughout the country have mostly been shut, although the risk of coronavirus spread has increased following the discovery of the new variants.
Meanwhile, public mobility has surged across the country after the lockdown was lifted. People are celebrating festivals, organising big weddings and going to nightclubs in numbers. Almost all restrictions have been lifted defying the World Health Organization’s guidelines to open up the economy only after the test positivity rate falls below 5 percent.
The government first introduced strict measures to contain the virus after a handful of cases were reported in the country. Following four months of lockdown, members of the public, especially in urban areas had adapted to working from home. But the number of reported cases surged despite the lockdown with frontline health workers bearing the brunt.
The government went from one extreme to another after lifting the lockdown. It relaxed containment measures even with cases rising. Thousands of people who had left Kathmandu, some of them on foot, returned in big numbers and with no institutional quarantine or isolation facilities available in the city, Kathmandu soon became a hotspot for the disease.
During the early days of the pandemic, it was the migrant workers returning home from abroad, most of them in their youth, who caught the virus. Most of them were asymptomatic as the virus affects people in their old age and those with comorbidities more than it does to young healthy people.
But as time passed, the disease spread to people of all ages and deaths began to surge. An undisclosed serology study reported an alarming spread of the virus. According to the study, 13 percent of the country’s population was infected with the coronavirus until September.
“Suggestions from experts were ignored, and science was defied. Instead of rectifying the mistakes and improving on the weaknesses, we let the virus spread by stopping tests and contact tracing. The list of problems on the part of authorities concerned is too long,” said KC.
Results from the serology tests and information on rapid diagnostic tests continue to be withheld while all interventions have been dropped. Photos and videos of clubs and protests amid the new political developments have alarmed health experts.
“The public should take the risk seriously, as the risk has not subsided,” said Sherpa. “They should maintain social distancing, wear face masks and take other safety measures.”
With a massive vaccination drive months, or even years, away, Covid-19 has affected everyone in many different ways from unemployment to anxiety. The year 2020 has been unprecedented, exposing fault lines in the country’s governance. It also brought to the fore the issues of corruption, spread of misinformation and sensationalisation. Worst of all, mishandling of the entire situation on the part of the government resulted in preventable infections and deaths, the cost of which is immeasurable.
“The coming year will be more challenging politically and from the perspective of pandemic. People have started to come out to the streets, meetings and gatherings have started to increase,” said Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of Clinical Research Unit Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital. “People are behaving as if there was no pandemic.”