Government is considering plans to ease the lockdown but there’s no decision yetThe government is under immense pressure to find ways to gradually lift the restrictions as people are starving and businesses are on the verge of collapse.
Over 70 days into the lockdown, the government has yet to come up with a concrete plan to ease restrictions, despite complaints of a loss of business, incomes and even lives due to the harsh restrictions on public movement.
When the Cabinet convened last week, there were expectations that even if the lockdown was extended, the government would come up with a modality on gradually lifting the blanket lockdown. According to ministers, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, however, was not keen on loosening restrictions, given the rise in the number of Covid-19 cases around the country. The complete lockdown was then extended until June 14.
A public outcry to lift the lockdown has begun to emerge, with daily wage workers facing difficulties finding food and businesses complaining of losses. On Thursday, traders and businesses in Kathmandu Valley decided to defy the lockdown and reopen, prompting the chief district officers of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur to convene an emergency meeting.
“An emergency meeting of the district corona crisis management committees of the Valley suggested that the government ease the lockdown at the earliest by strictly following health protocols,” Kathmandu CDO Janak Raj Dahal told the Post.
According to officials, concerns are growing that more people could start defying the lockdown if a phase-wise plan to ease the lockdown is not introduced soon. It is also in the larger humanitarian interest to ease the lockdown as supply lines have been affected. With a large number of Nepali migrants expected to return to the country very soon, there are also fears of a food shortage.
Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, who also heads the high-level coordination committee to combat Covid-19, has instructed ministry secretaries to devise an action plan to gradually lift the lockdown completely in three months.
“All secretaries have been told to prepare drafts of a sectoral executive action plan,” said Narayan Bidari, member secretary of the high-level coordination committee. “They will present their plans to Deputy Prime Minister Pokhrel on Sunday.”
The Corona Crisis Management Centre, which is also led by Pokhrel, has also come up with a plan that aims to ease the lockdown in six phases–each phase lasting two weeks–before lifting it completely in 70 days.
According to Bidari, the high-level committee will evaluate the various plans and then adopt one that fits the country. He, however, ruled out the possibility of dividing the country into different zones based on the incidence of Covid-19 on the grounds that the number keeps changing.
Public health experts have accused the government of squandering the two months provided by the lockdown to step up preparations to deal with Covid-19. With the government expanding testing and more Nepalis entering from India, the number of cases was expected to rise.
Businesspersons and economists meanwhile have been pressing the government to devise plans to ease the lockdown to reopen the economy, which has been hit hard in the last two months. Experts in the field of public health have said that the prolonged restrictions could result in more deaths due to job losses and other diseases. The lockdown has affected the poor and the marginalised disproportionately, robbing them of their livelihoods. There are now fears that the lockdown will result in more deaths from hunger.
Amid growing calls to ease the lockdown, Prime Minister Oli on Wednesday invited more than two dozen people from various fields, including doctors, public health experts and social scientists, to seek suggestions.
According to one participant, the meeting lasted four hours and each participant was given ample time to put forth their views.
Sameer Mani Dixit, a public health scientist and one of the participants in Wednesday’s meeting, expressed his doubts via Twitter on Friday as to whether their advice was going to be taken into consideration.
“The prime minister invited us for a consultative meeting, thank you [for that]. But there are some concerns if the lockdown is going to be eased,” Dixit wrote on Twitter. “There are reasons to doubt: why no advice was taken on a health emergency and bringing RDT kits? Why didn’t yesterday’s [Thursday’s] Cabinet take any decision on the lockdown?”
Dr Aruna Uprety, an advocate of proper nutrition, who was also invited to the meeting, said that almost all experts urged the prime minister to urgently come up with an alternative to the ongoing lockdown.
The Health Ministry meanwhile has recommended that the Cabinet declare a nationwide public health emergency. On Thursday, the ministry decided to forward a proposal, as per its emergency action plan, to declare a public health emergency, which would allow the government to direct all logistical and financial resources towards fighting Covid-19.
Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, which lasted around four hours, took no decision on either easing the lockdown or declaring a health emergency.
Minister for Industry, Commerce and Supplies Lekhraj Bhatta told the Post that discussions revolved around ways to ease the lockdown.
“After studying the situation for a couple of more days and taking into consideration suggestions from experts in various fields, a concrete decision will be taken,” he said.
The high-level coordination committee has also held its own meetings with civil society, the banking sector, transportation sector, and educationists, said Bidari.
As per the six-phase plan to ease the lockdown, which is under discussion at various levels, more businesses will be allowed to open in two-week intervals, provided they follow through with health protocols.
In the first phase, agricultural products and daily consumer goods distribution centres will be allowed to open, along with stores that sell essential goods and departmental stores.
In the second phase, all health institutions, online media and relief centres will be allowed to open while government offices and print media will be partially opened. In the third phase, private vehicles will be allowed to move, based on odd-even plate numbers, along with long-distance public vehicles and domestic flights.
In the fourth phase, most sectors, except for educational institutes and large businesses, will be opened with physical distance protocols. International flights will also be allowed partially.
In the fifth phase, schools, universities, entertainment and construction services, information and communication organisations, banking and financial organisations, sports, religious places, and government and private offices would be allowed to open.
The sixth phase will be a complete opening up of the country.
Private sector representatives on Friday held a meeting with officials from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies to discuss ways to ease lockdown and reopen the economy.“Private sector leaders held a serious discussion at the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies,” Shekhar Golchha, senior vice-president of the Federation of the Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, wrote on Twitter. “Almost all private sector colleagues advised lifting of the lockdown”.