For Nepalis in the US, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been soberingMany Nepalis live in fear that they will not receive treatment if they contract Covid-19, and even if they do get treatment, they fear they will go broke.
S.D., an undergraduate student in the US state of Missouri, worked part-time as a cashier in a gas station. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, his manager did not provide the employees with essentials like sanitisers, gloves, or face masks, leading him to stop coming to work, he said. After not showing up for 23 days, he finally quit.
“As a cashier, I used to come in contact with all kinds of people, some of whom would freely sneeze or cough in public,” said S.D., who requested that he only be identified by his initials. “I eat healthy and try to take care of my mental health but when I travel on public transportation as I don’t own a car, I get really anxious.”
As an international student, S.D. has health insurance but his specific plan does not cover treatment for Covid-19, only testing, he said. And he knows that he cannot afford healthcare in the United States, since the medical facilities are prohibitively expensive. And even if he gets sick, he worries that citizens will be prioritised over immigrants like him, given the ‘America First’ rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
As Covid-19 continues to ravage the world, the United States has been wracked by turmoil over the response to the pandemic. Many observers have blamed Trump’s slow response for allowing the virus to spread rapidly throughout the population. Over 1.5 million infections have been reported so far, with more than 90,000 deaths—the highest in the world.
Among the many immigrants stuck in the United States while the pandemic wreaks havoc across the country are Nepalis like Devkota, who are looking at uncertain futures and living in fear of catching Covid-19.
Deepesh Bista, a research scientist at the University of Toledo in the state of Ohio, has not stepped inside a grocery store for more than two months now. The first week of lockdown, which began in March in Ohio, seemed easy and manageable but the real struggle began after the second week, he said. His wife lost her job as the company she worked for shut down, leading to financial difficulties.
“As a research scientist, the only work I am currently doing right now is writing papers and analysing data. I had been going every day to my lab to run and monitor experiments in March,” he said. “I had also been guiding a few graduate students but the teaching process has now been completely stopped.”
Being cooped up in the house and constantly watching the pandemic unfold on the news has only made the situation worse, said Bista, who feels his efficiency has decreased while working from home.
The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been varied across the United States. While many states have imposed lockdowns and strict measures to control the contagion, other states have relaxed restrictions. There have even been protests in a number of states regarding state restrictions on public movement and the closing of businesses.
In New York, the state with the highest number of infections and deaths, the mood is grim. New York City is home to thousands of Nepali immigrants who are living under stay-at-home orders, which is a less severe form of the lockdown that Nepal has imposed.
Sujan Adhikari, who works at a finance and consulting firm in New York City, said that his daily work has not been affected, as he is working from home, but the lockdown has led him to feel isolated.
“I am wary of even going out for a quick run since maintaining physical distance is not always possible,” he said. “I try to stay connected with my friends and family through video calls to not feel isolated but it is not enough. Living away from my family during such times is taking a toll on me.”
Despite the anguish and despair, Nepal’s ban on all incoming flights has meant that Nepalis cannot return home, even if they wanted to. Things are especially hard for students, many of whom are under some kind of financial assistance from their colleges and universities.
S.D., the student from Missouri, has gone back to work at the gas station. He pays $9,000 a semester and earns all of it by working, as he does not have a scholarship.
“I had to retake the job I quit earlier because I will run out of money very soon. I also send some amount of money back home to my family in Nepal every month,” he said. “But my manager has still not provided me with any safety measures.”
Many Nepalis, however, are surprised by the response to the pandemic. As a developed country with some of the most advanced hospitals in the world, they, like millions of others, had hoped that the United States would be able to get the pandemic under control. But even as the US response under President Trump has been criticised—even by former President Barack Obama—for being sorely lacking, protests, often armed, against lockdown measures have taken place in numerous states. These protests have now been linked to the spread of the coronavirus.
“Being an immigrant, my expectations of the American government may have been too high when it came to handling such an unprecedented situation like this,” said Bista. “I had hoped that this great nation would have been better prepared.”
This article has been updated to remove an identifying name.