Tentative discussions begin on easing the lockdown and reopening the economyEconomists and businesspersons say while they understand Covid-19’s danger to public health, the economy cannot be locked down forever.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
Nepal went into the 26th day of a nationwide lockdown on Saturday to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Lockdowns, full or partial, have been employed by numerous countries across the world as a primary precautionary measure against the virus.
But several countries are now mulling ways to ease the lockdown, given the extreme economic costs of shutting down entire economies. Experts and businesspersons in Nepal are following suit, saying that the government needs to start working on plans and introducing guidelines for when the lockdown can be relaxed.
No one knows when the pandemic will come under complete control, but the economy cannot be locked down forever, they say.
“In our meetings, I have suggested that we gradually relax the lockdown, starting from the agriculture sector,” said Pushpa Raj Kadel, vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission. “We can also consider resuming supply systems, particularly in the hill regions.”
Nepal so far has reported 30 Covid-19 cases, with two patients discharged after recovery. Fourteen cases were reported in a single day on Friday—12 in Udayapur and two in Chitwan.
According to Govinda Nepal, an economist, the lockdown should be fully relaxed in the agriculture sector, which is a must for the livelihood of many poor Nepalis.
The agriculture sector contributes 27 percent to the country's gross domestic product.
“The lockdown can be partially relaxed in other major economic centres, including the Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara and Hetauda,” said Nepal. “The economy has already been hit hard and the government should start taking measures to not let it get damaged beyond repair.
The World Bank has predicted that Nepal’s growth rate will be in the range of 1.5-2.8 percent in the current 2019-20 fiscal year, followed by 1.4-2.9 percent in 2020-21 and 2.7-3.6 in 2021-22. This follows the Asian Development Bank’s revised growth rate for Nepal to 5.3 percent from 7.1 percent for this fiscal year.
This lockdown, and the subsequent fall in the growth rate, is a huge setback for the government, which had set an 8.5 percent growth target for this fiscal year. In the tourism sector alone, over one million jobs have been affected. The biggest impact of the lockdown has been on daily wage earners.
During an interview with the BBC Nepali Service on Thursday, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada said that the government has been trying to seek a balance between the lockdown and resuming economic activities.
“Wherever the risk is minimal and where industrial and construction activities can be carried out in an isolated way, the government has already opened those sectors,” he said. “If the risk concentrates in certain locations, other sectors will be opened based on priority and national needs, particularly the sectors that support the livelihoods of people gradually. But the standards on health and sanitization must be followed.”
The high-level coordination committee for the prevention and control of Covid-19 on April 2 had decided to allow industries other than those producing essential goods to restart work as long as they ensure that the workers remain within the premises and follow proper safety guidelines.
The government has also decided to continue work in some major construction projects, including the Melamchi Drinking Water Project, the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project and Gautam Buddha International Airport.
Saturday’s Cabinet meeting too discussed relaxing the lockdown and reopening certain sections of the economy.
“We need to make our economic activities more active, for which the government will gradually open certain industries, larger projects and agriculture activities by following necessary health protocols,” Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali told the Post.
Economists and businesspersons say that Nepal can study how other countries, including India, are planning to slowly reopen their economies while continuing with the lockdown, and introduce measures that suit the country.
The Indian government on Wednesday announced it would restart parts of the economy starting April 20, allowing agriculture, logistics, infrastructure, e-commerce and factories located outside municipal limits to return to work in areas where no infections have been reported.
According to Indian media reports, India is exploring a decentralised strategy to exit the lockdown, which may involve dividing the nation into green, orange and red zones. The Indian government has already allowed movement of staff and contractual labour for operations of railways, airports, land-ports, seaports, provided they procure necessary passes from local authorities.
India is under lockdown until May 3. It has so far reported more than 14,500 infections and over 480 deaths.
Economist Nepal stressed reopening the economy but said that it should be done in a planned manner.
“So far, cases have been reported from certain areas. While measures to find cases—test and trace—should continue, the government should step up efforts to treat people,” Nepal told the Post. “The government can identify hotspots and then slowly reopen industries in other areas.”
The Ministry of Health has identified Sudurpaschim Province, Province 2 and Province 1 and some locations of Banke and Bardiya as hotspots.
“Based on the inflow of people returning from India and the possibility of infiltration due to the open border, these provinces and locations have been identified as hotspots,” said Basudev Pandey, director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division.
But public health experts say that relaxing the lockdown by just looking towards the economy could have serious ramifications and that all concerned should come together and discuss before taking a decision.
“First of all, we should prepare the conditions on which we will withdraw or relax the lockdown,” said Dr Sharad Onta, a professor at the Department of Community Medicine and Family Health at the Institute of Medicine.
“The Covid-19 situation should be the central parameter to decide on whether to relax lockdown. We should not relax or withdraw lockdown without being confident that the government can control Covid-19.”
Economists and industrialists too agree that relaxing the lockdown should not come at the cost of public health.
“There’s no doubt that people’s health should be the utmost priority,” said Nepal. “The concern, however, is for how long can we afford to keep our economic activities shut.”
According to Nepal, testing should definitely be expanded and expedited, and the government should conduct tests on all workers who come from outside.
On Wednesday, Tatopani locals protested against the reopening of the border point, saying that they feared that movement of more people in the area could put them at risk.
“Tests should also be conducted on workers to convince locals that they are not at risk,” said Nepal. “We need to start building confidence among the people, and an environment should be created to encourage workers to come to work.”