As Covid-19 spreads to Malaysia and the Persian Gulf countries, uncertainty looms over Nepal’s labour migrationLabour migration to South Korea has been temporarily halted but no decision has yet been made regarding Malaysia and Gulf countries with rising Covid-19 cases.
South Korea has been most affected, after China, by Covid-19 with over 6,280 confirmed cases and 40 deaths. Among major destinations for Nepalis in the Middle East, Kuwait has reported 58 confirmed cases, Bahrain has 49, the United Arab Emirates has 27, Qatar has 8 and Saudi Arabia has 2, so far. Malaysia too has reported 50 confirmed cases.
There are an estimated 500,000 Nepali migrants in Malaysia, the most popular labour destination, followed by Qatar with over 400,000, Saudi Arabia (334,451) and the United Arab of Emirates (224,905), according to the 2019 Migration in Nepal Report.
Even as more Nepalis ready themselves to go abroad, despite the global health panic, the government remains undecided on whether to halt labour migration to these compromised countries.
“The ministry has been discussing various options, including whether to stop labour permits and what to do in case of a mass outbreak, in the last couple of days but no formal decision has been taken so far,” said Suman Ghimire, spokesperson for the Labour Ministry. “As the Supreme Court has directed the government to stay alert, we need to have some early preparedness measures in place.”
The government, on Monday, issued a travel advisory asking the public to refrain from non-essential travel to countries affected by Covid-19, including China, South Korea, Iran, Japan and Italy, to prevent the spread of the disease to Nepal and Nepalis.
Nepali missions in labour destinations have also issued similar advisories asking Nepali citizens to stay safe and suggesting measures to protect themselves from a potential infection.
But on Tuesday, there was mass confusion among migrants as numerous media reports claimed that labour permits for some countries had been temporarily stopped in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The Labour Ministry later clarified that no such decision had been taken.
“The Labour Ministry is coordinating with other government agencies to discuss the matter in detail before coming out with any such decisions,” said Ghimire. “Coronavirus cases are on the rise. We need to analyse the situation thoroughly and coordinate.”
Although a decision has yet to be taken, the coronavirus outbreak is certain to affect the country’s labour migration sector. Numerous countries have placed travel restrictions and in countries severely affected severely by Covid-19, like South Korea and Japan, shops and businesses have shut down, turning cities into ghost towns. The Nepali migrant population is certainly reeling from the downturn in the economies of these cities.
Source countries like Nepal, whose labour force remains highly concentrated in a few Persian Gulf countries and East Asia, should be cautious while sending their workers to countries with reported cases of coronavirus, said Jeevan Baniya, a labour migration researcher.
“Sending out workers to those countries can have severe implications,” said Baniya, who is also an assistant director at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility at Social Science Baha, a think tank. “There should be prior risk analysis as there could be political consequences if a Nepali worker spreads the virus in foreign lands. A large scale outbreak will also necessitate the rescue and repatriation of our citizens, and their subsequent treatment here in Nepal.”
The coronavirus outbreak has once again exposed the problems with Nepali labour migration and its dependence on a few destination countries for jobs. Labour analysts have often warned that any turmoil in the Middle East could have significant consequences for the migrants there, and on the Nepali economy, to which remittance is a major contributor.
“Our dependence on a handful of countries, when there are geopolitical and economic upheavals, can have serious ramifications on our labour migration sector,” said Baniya. “The global economy has been affected, so has the economy of those countries, meaning the labour demand from Nepal might see a drop in the future as well.”
The World Health Organization has so far confirmed more than 97,000 Covid-19 infections in dozens of countries, with more than 3,380 deaths.
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.