Nepalis in Portugal live in fear of infection but are financially insulatedThe Portuguese government has temporarily provided all migrants with full citizenship rights to ensure that everyone has access to health care and social security.
It has been over three weeks since Nabaraj Pokhrel left his apartment in Lisbon. Like many other countries, Portugal has enforced a state of emergency in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, limiting all residents to their homes. Pokhrel, along with his wife, two children, and two other Nepalis who share the flat, has been inside.
There’s no work since the city is under a complete lockdown until April 17, as the Portuguese government has extended the state of emergency.
“Every time we go out to buy groceries, it feels like a war zone,” Pokhrel told the Post over the phone from Lisbon. “As the coronavirus can spread through human contact and also from the items we bring home, we are afraid for the next few days and hope we don’t get sick. Everyone is living in fear of infection.”
Portugal, a European country of over 10.28 million people, reported its first case of Covid-19 in early March and the first death in mid-March. Since then, cases have continued to multiply, with over 13,000 positive cases and as many as 380 deaths as of Thursday.
For residents in Portugal, including the nearly 30,000 Nepalis, this has meant a loss of jobs, no public movement and no leaving the home.
“In Portugal, most Nepalis are workers; only a few are students,” said Raj Kumar Thapa, who’s been living in the Portuguese capital for the last four years. “Over 90 percent of Nepalis are working in the hospitality sector because of their knowledge of the English language, which comes handy while dealing with visitors. But hotels and restaurants have closed and they’re all home now.”
But unlike in other countries, Nepalis in Portugal don’t have to worry too much about losses in incomes and not having money during the lockdown. As part of the Portuguese government’s extraordinary measures meant to protect families and workers affected by the pandemic, the country's social security system will guarantee payment of 70 percent of monthly remuneration while employers will need to provide the remaining 30 percent.
Portugal has temporarily extended full citizenship rights to all migrants and asylum seekers, allowing everyone within its territory access to its health care and social security systems. This bodes well not just for Nepalis who are living in lockdown without jobs but also for those who’ve been infected with the disease, as they will likely not be burdened with massive hospital bills.
According to Pokhrel, eight Nepalis, including a pregnant woman, have been infected with Covid-19 whereas another Nepali was reported to be infected in Faro, about three hours from Lisbon.
A total of 17 Nepali workers were quarantined at a school in Odemira two weeks ago after an Indian co-worker tested positive for Covid-19. They were allowed to go home on Sunday after none of them showed symptoms.
At least 11 Nepalis in Portugal have so far tested positive for the coronavirus.
Nepali groups in Portugal have extended support to Nepalis affected by the pandemic but both Pokhrel and Thapa worry that the infections among their compatriots will rise, especially given close-quarters living conditions and their nature of work.
“Work in the agriculture sector is still continuing in rural areas because the harvest cannot go to waste,” said Pokhrel. “While working in farms, they have to work in groups, which raises the risk of infection.
According to Thapa, Nepalis also tend to live together, crammed into small apartments to save rent money. In cities like Lisbon, sometimes as many as 15 Nepalis live together in an apartment, he said.
Although they live in fear of infections, most Nepalis are utilising the lockdown to spend time with their families, which they do not often get to do because of their work, said Pokhrel. But despite the hardships, they are thankful to have ended up in Portugal, a country that has put in place measures to help them.
“We see the benefit of living in a country with a good social security system,” said Pokhrel. “It feels like not a single cent we paid in taxes has gone to waste and the money comes back to us at a time of crisis.”