We have prioritised public awareness: Mayor Sunil PrajapatiBhaktapur Municipality has proved to be an outlier in Covid-19 impact. While the cases are surging across Kathmandu Valley, the ancient city has had only 17 infections so far.
On Monday Valley’s municipal forum, which consists of all municipalities in Kathmandu Valley, decided to close all non-essential services for 15 days, effective from Tuesday. But Bhaktapur Municipality that has been boycotting the forum since its establishment in 2018 November, and therefore won’t be following the forum’s decision. The ancient city, which is known for its rich culture and heritage, has so far been handling the Covid-19 cases in its own way— and has managed to keep a low infection rate compared to Kathmandu and Lalitpur. As of Wednesday, the Valley has reported 1,450 Covid-19 cases, with Kathmandu district registering the highest 1,166. Lalitpur district has so far witnessed 179 cases while Bhaktapur district is the least affected district with only 105 cases. Moreover, Bhaktapur Municipality has had only 17 Covid-19 cases till date. Sunil Prajapati, the mayor of Bhaktapur Municipality, spoke to Anup Ojha of the Post about his city’s fight against Covid-19. Excerpts.
Kathmandu Valley has crossed over 1,400 Covid-19 positive cases with nine deaths, How do you analyze the situation? What is the status of Bhaktapur Municipality?
The world is suffering from Covid-19 and Nepal is no exception. In Bhaktapur Municipality, there have been 17 cases of Covid-19 so far. Two of them imported cases from Bahrain and India while the remaining 15 were detected among the people who had come from out of the Valley. Soon after they were tested, the patients were kept in quarantine. By then, Bhaktapur Municipality had sensed the threat of Covid-19.
Bhaktapur is a cultural city. Throughout the year, the city observes various jatras and festivals. In the month of August, we used to have Gunla Baja festival (devotional music played by Newars) and Panchadan Parba. They have been postponed. We have already postponed Biska Jatra and we are also planning to postpone all the upcoming jatras in view of the pandemic.
We have one quarantine centre. We have also mandated hotel and home quarantines for people coming out of the Valley. Now we have eight people living in the quarantine centre; 30 people have left after completing the mandatory quarantine period. In hotel quarantine, there are four people right now. Twenty-eight people, who had returned from abroad, have returned after completing quarantine in hotels. The city has deployed nine of its staff to monitor the quarantine centres. If the number of people increases, we will deploy more officials.
Compared to the three districts in Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur has the least number of Covid-19 cases. However, Bhaktapur is still at high risk. How is the city working to reduce the number of infecion?
The main problem here is that industries are open. They should have been closed earlier. Or only those industries with designated quarantine centres should have been allowed to operate. Last time we saw a Covid-19 positive case in an industry worker in the Industry Area (closed to our municipality office). The man had come from Bara district. We later found out that he was given permission to travel by Changunarayan Municipality. Since that case, we have been coordinating with the District Administration Office to monitor and regulate the vehicles coming from Kathmandu and from outside the Valley.
Compared to other municipalities in the Valley, Bhaktapur Municipality has been working differently. Are there any different approaches you have adopted to fight the pandemic?
We have prioritised public awareness. We have been regularly disseminating messages on public health and safety using loudspeaker in the city. We have also stopped the movement of vegetable and fruit vendors who sell their produce on bicycles and carts. Besides that we are also consulting with the Chief District Office to stop the entry of vegetables coming out of the Valley, as vegetables grown inside the Valley are enough for our municipality. We have also set up 50 volunteers in each ward to mobilise them in emergency situations.
What are the challenges you have been facing in the fight against Covid-19? Has the central government been cooperating?
The main challenge is that people are still allowed to get into the city from different entry points of the Valley. The central government should have stopped the free movement of people, but it has not. It’s challenging to prevent our city and citizens from getting infected with Covid-19, as infection rates are high in Kathmandu. We are discussing ways to prevent a severe outbreak in the city.
As for the central government’s role, it has been sending us circulars and directives. I don’t know if one can consider that help. The government has not sent us doctors, nor has it sent its team to inquire about the situation in quarantine centres. Two months ago we’d received Rs 1.2 million from the federal government, which is a low amount if you consider the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis.
Homes in Bhaktapur, particularly in the old areas, are built in clusters. Health officials have warned about the danger of coronavirus spreading much quickly in such areas. What are the city’s preparations to prevent such a situation?
Yes, there is a high possibility of coronavirus infection spreading in old neighbourhoods of Bhaktapur. We are extra alert on this matter. We have urged the people living in old neighbourhoods to be more cautious and strictly follow health and safety rules. The people also have the responsibility to keep their communities safe from Covid-19. If there is an outbreak in one of the neighbourhoods, then all efforts we have put in so far will be meaningless.
On Monday, the Valley’s municipal forum announced to close all the non-essential services for two weeks, but Bhaktapur was not part of the meeting. Why did your city refuse to be part of the forum?
Ever since the country adopted federalism, we have been working independently and every municipality has that right to do so. I don’t think joining the forum will make any difference. This is the time for action. It's the responsibility of every city resident to fight this pandemic.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.