Nepal to stop issuing visa on arrival to visitors from African countriesAmid Omicron fears, Covid committee recommends stepping up surveillance at border points and Kathmandu airport, increasing PCR tests, carrying out more whole-genome sequencing and restricting entry to people returning from the disease-hit countries.
As the risk of spread of the Omicron, a highly transmissible coronavirus variant, grows, the government on Sunday decided to restrict entry to people from African countries.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has directed the Department of Immigration, Tribhuvan International Airport office and administration offices of districts bordering India not to issue visas on arrival to people coming from African countries.
“To mitigate the risk of spread of the new virus variant, we have directed agencies concerned not to issue visas on arrival to the people from African countries,” Phanindra Mani Pokhrel, spokesperson for the Home Ministry, told the Post. Nepalis returning from those countries can stay in home quarantine.”
Restricting direct flights from the disease-hit countries, banning entry to foreigners, testing all people at the international border points are among the measures governments around the world have taken to prevent possible transmission of the highly mutant coronavirus variant—dubbed Omicron.
Doctors say the idea of restricting only those from African countries to lessen the risk of infection is not convincing, as anyone from anywhere can bring the virus.
“It has been suspected that the new variant has already spread in many countries of Europe and Asia,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of Clinical Research Unit at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, told the Post.
“It will be childish to think that only the people from Africa bring the virus and not those from Europe or Nepalis returning from abroad. Strict measures and an effective surveillance system is needed to monitor the risks.”
Several countries including the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, and Hong Kong have reported their first cases of Omicron. These are the countries from where Nepalis and foreigners frequently come to Nepal.
Every day around 10,000 people enter the country from the Tribhuvan International Airport.
Health workers deployed at the health desk at Kathmandu airport check the polymerase chain reaction reports issued within 72 hours or fully vaccination certificates of the travellers.
“If anyone visits Nepal without a PCR report or without vaccination, after just single dose vaccination, or before 14 days of second dose vaccination, we send such people to hotel quarantine,” said Gopal Prasad Pandey, a senior health assistant deployed at a the health desk set up at the international airport. “Some people come without PCR reports and vaccination reports and such travelers are quarantined in hotels at their own expense.”
Health workers at the health desk said on Sunday that they were awaiting instructions from higher authority regarding new preventive measures the entire day but neither the Ministry of Health and Population, nor the Covid-19 Crisis Management Coordination Center has issued any instruction.
Earlier, in the morning, a meeting of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Coordination Center (CCMCC) was held on Sunday but no decision was taken.
“We held a meeting of all stakeholders and discussed the evolving situation regarding the outbreak of the highly mutant Covid-19 variant,” Sunita Nepal, spokesperson for the Centre, told the Post.
The meeting had given the responsibility to Maheshwar Neupane, chief of the Center to talk to the government’s chief secretary and convey the Centre’s recommendations regarding the new coronavirus variant.
According to Nepal, the experts participating in the meeting have recommended stepping up surveillance especially at border points and the international airport, increasing polymerase chain reaction tests, carrying out more whole-genome sequencing and restricting entry to the people returning from the disease-hit countries.
Chief Secretary Shankar Das Bairagi, however, said the government had not taken any decision on Sunday regarding new measures against the new virus variant.
“A Cabinet meeting is scheduled for tomorrow (Monday), which could discuss the measures taken to avoid the risk of spread of the new virus variant,” Das told the Post. “Recommendations made by the Covid-19 Crisis Management Coordination Center will be presented at the Cabinet meeting.”
Several countries including the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Israel and Singapore, Pakistan , Hong Kong of China have imposed travel restrictions on African countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Lesotho, among others.
Authorities in India have decided that all people returning from three Omicron hotspots—South Africa, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong— have to undergo polymerase chain reaction tests upon arrival and have to wait at the airport to get entry.
The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the new coronavirus variant to be “of concern”, the same category as the highly transmissible Delta variant, and named it Omicron.
According to the New York Times, the designation means that the variant has mutations that might make it more contagious or more virulent or make vaccines or other preventive measures less effective and early evidence suggested increased risk of reinfection.
Nepal doesn't have direct flights to and from the said African countries, but people from those countries still come to Nepal. And Nepalis working in those countries also keep travelling to and from those countries.
But what is concerning is that the chances of suspected infected people entering Nepal via land crossings is equally high as surveillance at the border points is weak. Almost all the land crossings between Nepal and India are not equipped to conduct PCR tests. Every day, thousands of people enter the country from India through dozens of land crossings.
The Ministry of Health and Population said it has alerted agencies to step up survillences on the border and step up vigilance. But officials said it is easier said than done.
“Nothing has been done in the last two years to manage the border points to minimise the risks,” said an official at the Health Ministry, asking not to be named. “How can we expect that drastic change will happen overnight?”
Public health experts say chances of the virus variant entering the country is very high from India, as India had direct flight from the disease-hit countries until Saturday.
“New cases of coronavirus have been increasing in many countries and if the highly contagious virus variant enters or has already entered India, it will surely enter Nepal,” Dr Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said. “Indecision of the authorities concerned could be costly for both the people and the country.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation’s South-East Asia Region has asked countries to be vigilant as cases are surging globally and the new variant of concern has been detected. Issuing a press statement Saturday, the UN body’s regional office appealed to countries in the South-East Asia Region to scale up surveillance, strengthen public health and social measures, and enhance vaccination coverage.
“Though Covid-19 cases have been declining in most countries of our region, the surge in cases elsewhere in the world and confirmation of a new variant of concern, is a reminder of the persisting risk and the need for us to continue to do our best to protect against the virus and prevent its spread. At no cost should we let our guards down,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of the WHO’s South-East Asia region.
The UN’s regional body says countries must enhance surveillance and sequencing. They should assess the risk of importation through international travel based on updated information on circulating variants and response capacities, and take measures accordingly.
“Comprehensive and tailored public health and social measures to prevent transmission must continue. The earlier the protective measures are implemented, the less restrictive they would need to be in order to be effective. The more Covid-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus will have to change and mutate, and the pandemic will last longer,” said Singh.
The most important thing people must do is reduce their risk of exposure to the virus–wear a mask and wear it properly covering nose and mouth; keep distance; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cover cough and sneeze; and get vaccinated.
Even after getting vaccinated, everyone must continue to take precautions to prevent becoming infected and to infect someone else who may get severely affected by the virus.
WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution met on Friday and designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern and named it Omicron. Researchers are working to understand how transmissible or virulent this variant is, and how it will impact diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
“We must not forget that the pandemic is far from over. As societies open up, we should not get complacent. Festivities and celebrations must include all precautionary measures. Crowds and large gatherings must be avoided. The current situation warrants further stepping up efforts on all fronts,” the regional director said.