‘Virus? What virus?’ attitude among public may fuel infection risksWith second wave looming, carelessness could spell a disaster, but people blame officials for doing little to raise awareness in communities and say no to another lockdown.
Bel Man Gurung was waiting for his turn at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital at Teku on Monday to get tested for Covid-19. He said he did not have any symptoms to prompt him to undergo a polymerase chain reaction test. Since it is mandatory that anyone flying abroad for work or study has to present a Covid-19 negative report, Gurung was at the hospital.
“I am sure I do not have any symptoms, but I need to present my PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test report at the airport,” said Gurung, 32, a resident of Bajepatan Pokhara in Kaski, who is flying to Portugal for employment.
Ram Gautam from Chitwan, who was standing in a line for his Covid-19 test, said he came to the hospital because he is flying to Qatar.
“If I get scared of the virus and stop moving, my family will continue to remain in debt,” Gautam told the Post. “But anyway, it does not look like the virus is as fatal as it was said to be.”
Like Gurung and Gautam, a majority of the people who were at the Sukraraj Hospital on Monday said that they were there because they needed “a certificate” that proved they did not have Covid-19.
There were just a few who said they came for tests not because they had some symptoms.
After a Cabinet meeting held on October 5 decided not to provide free testing and treatment for all, testing has been drastically reduced and contact tracing stopped.
Even after the Supreme Court’s ruling to provide free testing and treatment, the Health Ministry included the provision ‘symptomatic’ which made no difference in testing and contact tracing.
What was seen at the hospital is a testament to Nepalis not going for PCR tests voluntarily, unless they seriously feel that they could have contracted Covid-19.
According to the hospital records, on Monday 95 people visited for PCR tests while the number stood at 90 on Tuesday.
“Only 10 percent of people with symptomatic cases come for tests, and they also come because their offices demand it,” Pramananda Bhandari, in charge of the hospital lab, told the Post. “The rest come for tests because they need proof that they are virus-free as they have their flights scheduled.”
Wednesday marks one year since the country went into a lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Nepal has become one of the first countries to launch a vaccination drive but with a second infection wave looming, doctors say there is no room to become complacent.
The government on Sunday issued a notice, asking all to strictly follow precautionary measures and not to organise gatherings and programmes.
While the government’s notice–this is not the first one–seems to be too ritual with no massive awareness campaigns, members of the public appear to have heavily downplayed the threat of the virus, which has scared Europe and even neighbouring India.
As of Tuesday, 3,019 people have died of Covid-19 infections in Nepal. The number of active cases stands at 1,128. After a dramatic dip in daily infections, the number has started to rise again. The country reported 188 new infections in the past 24 hours. There was no death in the period.
While experts say the risk is not over yet, people seem to be extremely careless. According to them, many Nepalis still tend to say “virus? what virus?” even as cases are rising.
When the Post met Shiva Raj Chapagain, 46, at Bijuli Bazaar, he was walking with his two friends. None were wearing masks.
“In the initial days, I was quite afraid. Many of my relatives and friends were infected with the virus, but they quickly recovered,” Chapagain told the Post. “It looks like we have to learn to live with the virus and I don’t think it is that dangerous. And there has been a lot of confusion… some say the vaccine is working and others say it’s not.”
Chapagain even shared his idea of keeping the virus at bay. “Control your food and do regular exercise,” he said.
There are others who do not feel like wearing masks for other reasons.
Ninety-year-old Ram Maharjan says wearing masks all the time is too cumbersome.
“I cannot breathe properly with a mask on,” said Maharajan who was sitting at a park in Baneshwor on Tuesday. “There was so much fear among old people like me, but I think nothing happened to the elderly as such.”
Even though the government inoculated people over 65 years of age from March 7 to March 15, Maharjan did not take the jab.
“No one wears masks these days so I have also stopped,” Maharjan told the Post.
Some said they have not been able to abide by the safety measures prescribed by the government because of their own socio-economic conditions.
For Santa Bhujel, 47, who lives in a squatter settlement in Thapathali, wearing masks and constantly using sanitiser is an expensive affair.
“Despite not wearing masks and using sanitiser, none of our family members contracted the virus,” said Bhujel. “At times, I wonder if people are making too much fuss about this virus.”
Bhujel says she suffered a lot during the lockdown and that she and people like her who have to make a living by earning on a daily basis will have to face hardships of immense proportion if there is another lockdown.
Experts say even more than a year after the first virus case was detected in the country and a year after the country was shut, confusion continues to persist among the people about the virus. And the government and concerned agencies have failed to make people aware of the risk, according to them.
Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of the Clinical Research Unit at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, says the sad part is that while the authorities have failed to learn from past experiences, they have also been unable to make people aware of how dangerous this virus is.
“There is no alternative to continuously following the safety measures strictly,” Pun told the Post. “The number of cases is rising in India so Kathmandu and other major cities in Nepal with large populations must remain alert.”
A lower death rate compared to other countries and an early immunisation drive could have made many Nepalis complacent, but in recent days, after a sudden decline in new infections, the number of cases has been rising again.
Nepal so far has inoculated a little over 1.7 million people, around 5.7 percent of the total population. The vaccination drive, however, has been halted for now, as the government currently has just around 600,000 doses in its stock and it does not know when additional doses will arrive.
Those who have taken the first jab need to take the booster dose, starting April 20.
Experts say no one is safe until a majority of the population is inoculated and that it’s wrong to say the first jab makes people immune to the virus. And anyway, no vaccine has 100 percent efficacy, according to them.
“It’s alarming that people who have taken their first dose are found to have contracted the virus,” said Dr Sagar Rajbhandari, director at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital. “A patient tested positive for the coronavirus 16 days after taking the vaccine. The patient has been admitted.”
According to Rajbhandari, the country was seeing a steady decline in cases until nine days ago.
“But the number of cases has started to rise,” Rajbhandari told the Post. “We have around a 12 percent positivity rate today based on tests performed at our hospital.”
Nepal reported its first coronavirus case in the third week of January last year. When the country went into a lockdown on March 24, it had reported just a second case, and the first patient had already recovered.
By the time the lockdown was lifted on July 21, the number of cases had crossed the 17,000 mark and the number of fatalities stood at 40. Public health experts had questioned then also why the government imposed a lockdown and what made it lift it suddenly.
Doctors say authorities in Nepal most of the time were reactive and that they failed to take a proactive approach in the battle against the virus.
The government’s Sunday’s call not to organise gatherings, seminars and parties also follows a sudden surge in cases in India.
Even officials say they are at times surprised at the way the government is taking measures to deal with the virus.
“We do not know what is happening. We are by and large relying on data of those seeking tests to go abroad,” said an official at the Department of Health Services, asking not to be named. “We all know the risk level and the measures needed to be taken to minimise it, but without the government’s decision, we cannot do anything.”
Officials at the Ministry of Health say it is the responsibility of all agencies concerned as well as the members of the public to contain the spread of the epidemic.
“The entire country has to work in unison to fight the virus,” Dr Hemanta Chandra Ojha, an official at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, told the Post. “All government and private agencies as well as private citizens should make concerted efforts.”
Members of the general public, however, must be made abundantly aware of the risk of the virus if the government really needs their support in its fight against the disease, said a local resident of Lalitpur.
“If people are careless, then they are to be blamed, but just partly; authorities too must try to find out why they are careless even though this virus is so deadly,” said Shree Ratna Thapa of Lalitpur. “The government says wash your hands frequently or use sanitisers. Can someone show me at how many public places the government agencies have arranged for water, soap and sanitisers?”