Decision after decision, government rubs salt into workers’ woundsFirst the penniless and jobless workers had to wait for flights to resume. Now they need to cough up thousands of rupees for hotel quarantine.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
If only repatriation flights weren’t stopped abruptly, Ajay would be at home in Siraha looking back at his three-and-half years in Malaysia.
But the government’s sudden decision to suspend repatriation flights, on Monday, shattered his plans to return home on Thursday night.
“I have been unemployed for the last five months and haven’t earned a penny ever since,” said Ajay, who didn’t want to mention his full name or the name of his village.
“I have been surviving on food I get from friends or on money I borrowed from them. I spent all the money I saved on the flight ticket. I had a chance to return home yesterday [Thursday], but that did not happen.”
Ajay, who was laid off by a medical goods plant, had bought a one-way ticket to Kathmandu for Rs 42,940.
Thousands of migrant workers preparing to return home to their families face uncertainties following the Cabinet’s decision on Thursday to allow only one to two flights into the country every day.
With the number of Covid-19 cases growing in the country, especially in the Kathmandu Valley, since the lockdown was lifted on July 21, the government has enforced more restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Returning migrant workers, who were being sent home from “holding centres” following a basic medical examination, now have to remain in hotel quarantine for seven days in Kathmandu before they are allowed to go home.
This has added stress to Ajay and others like him as hotel quarantines cost a lot of money.
“I somehow managed to survive so far. But now I need more money for a PCR test and then for hotel quarantine,” said Ajay for the phone with his voice breaking. “How are workers like us who haven’t been earning anything for months supposed to pay for all of that?”
“I see no hope.”
For workers like Ajay, who have been stranded in various countries for several months, the burden of hotel quarantine in Kathmandu after is back-breaking.
First, these workers waited for several months for their turn to return home as repatriation flights were allowed only months after the lockdown was imposed. Once the government decided to bring workers home on chartered flights, authorities forced expensive tickets on workers, who had already lost their jobs.
While the Kathmandu district administration office published a list of hotels quarantines on Friday, the government also decided to form an integrated quarantine management committee to set up and operate integrated quarantine facilities in all three districts in the Valley.
According to Minister for Information and Communications Yubaraj Khatiwada, returning migrant workers sponsored by the Migrant Workers Welfare Fund can stay at the integrated quarantine facilities, and their expenses will be covered by the welfare fund. Likewise, quarantine bills for others who choose to stay at the integrated quarantine facility, will be borne by the government.
“But the arrangements are only for those who have an urgent need to be repatriated,” said Khatiwada. “For others who want to return voluntarily, they have to foot their own expenses [including that of hotel quarantine].”
According to the decision, made public on Friday, those returning on their own—without support from the migrant welfare fund—will have to stay at hotel quarantine for seven days and pay for it from their own pocket. As a large number of workers have been unable to avail support from the fund, it means that they have no other options than to pay for the hotel qurantines.
Khem Bahadur, a man from Jhapa living in the United Arab of Emirates, is also anxious about the hotel quarantine fees. He had paid AED 2,350 (Rs 76,426) for his flight home, scheduled for August 16, but it was rescheduled to August 24.
“During the last six months that I was off my job, my employer only gave me AED 1,000 for food. I had to ask my family to take a loan of Rs 80,000 for my ticket,” said Khem. “Now, the travel agency is asking me to add another AED 600 (Rs19,547) for my hotel quarantine in Kathmandu. I don’t know how I can pay for that.”
Khem, who doesn’t have a penny in his pocket, has had sleepless nights since the new rule was rolled out. His wife and kids want him home, but neither Khem nor his family in Jhapa has the money for his hotel quarantine.
“My job was never well-paying. Then, with the Covid-19 I haven’t had any money for six months now. I will be returning home in the same financial condition as I had migrated to work abroad,” said Kharel. “With the new rule, the government is simply killing poor workers like me. Only if the government waives the hotel quarantine fees, can I come home, otherwise, I can’t.”
The government has fixed hotels in Kathmandu where returnees can stay. A single room costs from Rs 2,800 to Rs 9,000 and for a twin-sharing room, the price has been fixed at Rs 1,800-Rs 6,000 depending upon the quality of the hotel.
With no signs of the integrated quarantine facilities coming into operation soon, workers don’t have any option but to stay in hotels whenever the government allows them to come home.
“Initially, the government made workers responsible for all repatriation costs if they wanted to return home. Then another guideline was issued to provide airfare to workers, but none of the guidelines have been effective so far,” said Kul Prasad Karki, chairperson at the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee, a non-governmental organisation working for the welfare of migrant workers.
“Rather than holding employers and recruiting agencies responsible, the government has again added burden on workers with the hotel quarantine rule,” he said.
“It seems that for the government, just getting airplanes to land at the airport is akin to rescue and repatriation. No other government in history has treated its citizens so badly.”
Karki said that the government should have sent returnees to their local governments rather than keeping them in Kathmandu.
“But the government doesn’t have a clear roadmap even months into the crisis. The centre shouldn’t try to do everything on its own,” said Karki.
“Ultimately, it is the workers who suffer. They were first exploited by agents and recruiting agencies while leaving Nepal, now they are returning home under similar conditions.”
Sudip Pathak, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, Nepal, said the government should bear all the expenses of repatriation.
“The NHRC’s stance has been that all repatriation expenses incurred during flights, travel within Nepal and quarantine should be borne by the state,” said Pathak. “There shouldn’t be any financial burden on workers who have already been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Timilsina, another Nepali worker based in Dubai, planned to return home on August 24. He also managed to buy an air ticket with his savings and arranged money for PCR test and hotel quarantine thanks to his family in Kavre. The bill stood at nearly Rs 100,000.
“Everyone is angry and worried. Those who have money have been getting money from their families, others are borrowing. Those without money to pay for the hotel quarantine are even thinking of cancelling their tickets,” said Timilsina. “First we paid for expensive flights and now we are being asked to pay for hotels. We are living without income for several months, but the government decided to rub salt into our wounds.”
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.