Government mulls options, including strict restrictions, as it flounders in virus fightAuthorities are considering sealing areas with more infections and ‘service lockdown’ but experts warn if the response is too little too late.
A rising number of Covid-19 cases in the country has sent a scrambling government to resort to various measures to contain the virus, which has so far infected over 22,000 people across the country.
In Kathmandu Valley alone, the number of cases rose to 980, with more than 106 infections reported on Friday, according to the Health Ministry. Seventy people, five in Kathmandu Valley, have died of Covid-related conditions so far.
Chief district officers of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur and chiefs of security agencies of the three districts on Friday held a meeting to discuss the possible measures that could be put in place to curb the coronavirus spread.
Virus cases started to soar after the government decided to lift the four-month-long lockdown gradually from July 22.
“We have decided to go for service lockdown at government offices to reduce crowds there,” Janak Raj Dahal, the Kathmandu chief district officer, told the Post. “We have also set up a dedicated mechanism for rigorous monitoring of risk at private offices.”
According to Dahal, if there is significant risk, the government could seal certain offices or restrict services.
"Given the economic crisis we could face and pressure from the business community, the government is not in a position to impose a complete lockdown," said Dahal.
The three district administration offices of the Valley on Friday decided not to provide services other than essential ones, related to security, filing of cases and disaster management from their offices for two weeks starting Sunday.
The Kathmandu District Administration Office also decided to seal some commercial areas like Teku, Ason, Indrachowk and New Road.
An official at the Health Ministry, however, said that sealing some areas may not help curb the contagion, given the huge mobility of people in the Capital.
“A complete lockdown is a possibility at least for 15 days, but the final decision is yet to be made,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The government, however, seems to be reluctant to use the term “lockdown”, citing the “psychological terror” it creates among the people.
Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada, who is also the government spokesperson, said on Thursday that the government has not thought of reimposing a lockdown and district administration authorities could take decisions of restrictions wherever necessary.
The Health Ministry official said regardless of whether it is called lockdown or not, there is no other way than to ban public movement, close public places like restaurants and ask service providers to stop services if people’s lives have to be saved.
As virus cases continued to surge, a floundering government, which has failed to justify how it used the four-month lockdown to step up measures like setting up quarantine and isolation facilities, increasing hospital beds, providing training to health workers and expanding tests, on Wednesday reimposed the odd-even rule for public and private vehicles in Kathmandu Valley and some other districts where more than 200 active cases have been reported, with effect from Thursday.
The government has also barred public and vehicular movements from 9pm to 5am and banned social gatherings–parties, seminars, feasts and public programmes–at hotels and restaurants.
However, public movement has continued to remain the same and because of odd-even rules, public transport vehicles are more crowded, as their number on the streets has been halved.
Public health experts say one of the major difficulties in a city like Kathmandu, with a population of more than 4 million, is contact tracing, as public mobility is huge.
Even officials from the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, the agency tasked with conducting contact tracking, say it has not been easy for various reasons—lack of manpower, bureaucratic hassles, people’s reluctance to pick up phones as well as wrong contact numbers that people often provide.
Public health experts say since the Valley has seen a sudden flare-up of the virus, contact tracing is even more important than testing.
Valley’s hospitals are already overwhelmed and government officials are asking infected people to stay home, which doctors say could invite even a bigger catastrophe, as it could lead to the virus spreading in communities in no time.
"Without strict restrictions or another lockdown, it seems impossible to curb the spread of the virus,” said Dr Sameer Adhikari, joint spokesperson for the Health Ministry. “How various ministries come up with their plans will be decisive in enforcing restrictions.”
When Nepal imposed the nationwide lockdown on March 24, the country had reported only two cases. By the time it lifted the lockdown, the number of cases had crossed 17,000.
In the initial days after the lifting of the lockdown, fewer cases were reported, but public health experts say the numbers were down because fewer tests were conducted.
According to Dr Mingmar Galgen Sherpa, former director general of the Department of Health Services, the government’s failure to assess the risk and respond accordingly has led to a serious situation in the country.
“Instead of lifting the lockdown at once, the government should have considered easing it step by step and established a mechanism to watch people’s movement,” Sherpa told the Post. “Now the virus spread is so massive that the government is feeling the heat.”
Public health experts say the government also failed to communicate with people properly—during the lockdown and after lifting it. According to them, the government lifted the lockdown in such a way that it sent a message that the virus too has disappeared.
Days after the lockdown was lifted, the festival season for Hindus in Nepal started with Janai Purnima on August 3.
Doctors have warned that festivals could be a time for virus spread.
“Authorities failed to pay attention to experts’ advice,” said Dr Baburam Marasini, former chief of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Department. “If they had utilised the lockdown period to prepare for the worst case scenario, things would have been different now.”
Arjun Poudel contributed reporting.
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.