Two months into lockdown, government yet to have a plan to bring back Nepalis from abroadOfficials say they are working on ways to repatriate citizens but there is neither evacuation protocol nor quarantine facilities and testing guarantee.
Out of work and out of money, hundreds of thousands of Nepalis in India and seven other labour destinations await repatriation, but the government has yet to come up with a detailed plan to bring them back.
A Cabinet meeting on Friday was expected to approve a plan to bring Nepali citizens from abroad, but a proposal to that effect was sent back to the Covid Crisis Management Centre for its consideration, according to one minister.
The minister told the Post that the Prime Minister’s Office has yet to prepare the evacuation protocol, including quarantine facilities and testing when they arrive in Nepal.
With the support of Nepal Army, the Covid Crisis Management Centre had prepared a plan to bring back 1.3 million migrants and forwarded a detailed proposal to the Cabinet for approval but the Council of Ministers sent back the proposal to the crisis management centre (CCMC).
According to a report by the Foreign Employment Board, at least 127,000 Nepali migrant workers from Malaysia and countries in the Persian Gulf are expected to return home immediately once travel restrictions are lifted. This includes those whose contract terms are over, those who’re stranded without jobs, and those who’ve applied for general amnesty in the country where they are working.
Another estimate by recruiting agencies says that at least 500,000 Nepali workers are likely to return home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Considering the large number of workers who will likely return to the country given the opportunity, the Nepal government needs to come up with specific plans to quarantine and test them, say analysts.
“We need thousands of quarantine facilities and a large-scale health care unit near the airport,” said Purna Chandra Bhattarai, a former secretary at the Labour Ministry. “Bringing back 1.3 million people safely and sending them to their respective home districts is a herculean task.”
The first task concerns the arrangement of flights back to Nepal.
According to Suman Ghimire, spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, employers will be asked to pay for the airfare of workers who have completed their work tenure or have lost jobs due to the pandemic.
“Employers are responsible for bearing two-way flights for workers who have served their terms,” said Ghimire. “These workers would have had to come home anyway once their tenure was over so their employers will be asked to provide them tickets.”
If employers refuse to pay the tickets or if workers are not eligible for tickets, destination countries themselves will be approached to manage flights for these workers, said Ghimire.
“The Nepal government will arrange flight tickets for workers who had recently gone abroad and lost their jobs, depending on their economic status,” he said. “The detailed modality of safe repatriation and their quarantine after arrival is being discussed.”
The first phase of repatriation is likely to begin in two weeks. As per the government estimation, around 25,000 Nepalis need to be evacuated urgently and preparations are on to bring in 2,500 a day.
The second phase of repatriation will involve arranging for their quarantine once they arrive in the country. As most workers are coming from countries with significant numbers of Covid-19 cases, they will need to be placed in secure quarantine facilities for at least two weeks before they are allowed to go home.
According to Binayak Shah, senior vice-president of the Hotel Association of Nepal, they are currently in discussion with government officials over turning hotels into quarantine facilities for five layers of people—health workers, tourists who are already here, students from Bangladesh, evacuees from the United States, and migrant workers.
Big and small hotels in the Kathmandu valley can accommodate around 6,000 people.
According to Nepal Airlines officials, the government is planning to evacuate 800 students from Bangladesh while discussions are ongoing to bring home people from the United States too.
Health officials attending to evacuees will be placed in five-star hotels.
“For health officials who will be placed in five-star properties, the government has requested that hotels charge Rs2,000 per night,” said Dhananjay Regmi, chief executive officer of the Nepal Tourism Board, who has been tasked with arranging quarantine facilities. “But at this time of crisis, big hotels are not very cooperative as they don’t want to go below Rs10,000 per night.”
Shah of the hotel association, however, said that the government needs to manage adequate facilities for migrant workers, since they will not be able to pay as most of them are already broke.
In countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and India, the governments have turned hotels into makeshift healthcare facilities or quarantine centres.
For those Nepalis who are stuck along the Nepal-India border, the Nepal Army has been tasked with building quarantine facilities in the border areas, according to an official from the CCMC.
“Anyone who wants to be quarantined in a hotel will have to pay,” said the official. “But we are looking for some open spaces in Kathmandu to build quarantine facilities.”
The Oli administration, which has been facing criticism for not utilising the lockdown as a window to expand testing and ease restrictions, now is being questioned about its preparations in the past two months to bring back Nepali citizens.
Govinda Bhattarai, a Nepali Congress leader who is coordinating migrant affairs in his party, said there are some Nepalis who need immediate repatriation for various reasons including health conditions, visa expiry and family issues.
“As there seems to be no preparation at all, how can we trust the government that it will safely bring them back?” he said.
Even weeks into the lockdown, Nepal had reported only sporadic cases of the virus. But as more tests were conducted, there was a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases. On Friday, Nepal’s Covid tally crossed 500. So far, three deaths have been linked to the coronavirus.
According to an official, the Covid Crisis Management Centre expects some 350,000 Nepalis to return in some months and the government is planning to bring them through 20 entry points.
They will have to be kept in quarantine once they enter the country and undergo tests.
“We have advised Nepalis here in India not to start leaving for Nepal at will and wait for some decision,” Balkarishna Pandey, president of Nepali Janasamparka Samiti, India, an organisation of Nepalis in India, told the Post over the phone. “But what is concerning is some middlemen are taking money in the name of reserving buses and jeeps for them to reach home.”
According to him, hapless Nepalis who have lost jobs and fear infections are left with no options.
“We have urged the Nepali community to remain safe and stay wherever they are,” said Pandey. “But there is a sense of insecurity among the Nepalis.”
With no proper plan for evacuating Nepalis from India and a decision to keep the border sealed, many of those who had already arrived at border points have entered the country using alternative routes. For officials in Nepal, this is a major cause for concern, as they are worried about the contagion.
But a lack of preparations on the government side was evident from the prime minister’s speech on Tuesday as well.
While addressing Parliament on Tuesday, Oli said evacuating Nepalis from abroad is not as easy as some people are saying.
“It’s not like evacuating some 100 people by the US and other countries,” said Oli. “Taking 100 people out of Kathmandu and bringing back 3.5 lakhs people from Qatar are two different things.”
Oli said that he and the foreign minister have spoken with their counterparts in various Gulf nations about the Nepalis there.
“We are working to bring those citizens who are really in trouble,” said Oli. “But we are not in a position to bring them in a haphazard way, as it could increase the risk of infection.”
Bhattarai, the former secretary at the Labour Ministry, said the situation is gradually turning grave.
“We need preparations on a massive scale. We need quarantine facilities. We need to be prepared to send people to their towns and villages safely. What would be the mode of transportation?” said Bhattarai. “It needed serious homework but in the last two months we saw nothing.”
Chandan Kumar Mandal and Sangam Prasain contributed reporting.