Long-haul transportation resumes, but people wishing to travel during Dashain are unsure about safety protocolsPublic health experts say increased public mobility during the festive season could lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases.
Santosh Neupane was wondering if he could go to his home district this festival season. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, long-distance transport services were banned. But the government on Tuesday evening said that bus services will resume from Thursday, raising hopes for people like Neupane who wish to go home to celebrate Dashain with their families and friends.
“If no new decision comes on the long-route transport services, I can go to my village,” said Neupane, 27, from Ramgha-4, Madhya Nepal Municipality in Lamjung. “But I again wonder whether it would be a good idea to travel such a long distance with so many passengers.”
Even though the government has said buses will be allowed to operate only with passengers on half their seats, Neupane does not seem convinced. While making public the government decision, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, also the government spokesperson, said buses will have to follow strict safety protocols. The government has also allowed domestic airlines to operate, but they too can fly with half their capacity.
“I want to go home to celebrate Dashain with my family,” said Neupane, who works at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. “But I am also afraid of contracting the virus.”
While the continued restrictions on various services have earned criticism, the new move to allow public vehicles to operate has also raised concerns, especially given the authorities’ failure to strictly impose safety protocols and public’s negligence.
When the government decided to put the country under lockdown from March 24, there were just two cases reported. After four months, the government lifted the lockdown on July 21. At that time, the number of cases had crossed the 17,000 mark. Public health experts were of the view that the authorities failed to use the lockdown period to step up measures to fight the virus.
After the lockdown was lifted, Covid-19 cases started to rise at an alarming rate, with Kathmandu Valley as well as some other Tarai districts reporting more cases by the day.
District administrators of the Valley then imposed prohibitory orders starting August 19 midnight, which continued for three weeks. The restrictions were extended last week again, but with relaxations on some sectors, allowing shops and businesses to operate on different days of the week for certain periods. From Thursday onwards, the situation is likely to return to pre-lockdown days.
Public health experts are warning of a surge in cases.
As of Wednesday, Kathmandu Valley has reported 13,661 Covid-19 cases. The Valley recorded 737 new infections in the last 24 hours, the highest so far for the given period, according to the Health Ministry. Of them, 652 were reported from Kathmandu, 25 from Bhaktapur and 60 from Lalitpur.
So far 88 people have died in the Valley due to Covid-19.
The national Covid-19 tally has reached 58,327. The death toll has soared to 379.
As of now the only rule the government has set for long-haul public vehicles is they can keep just one passenger in one row of seats on either side and charge 50 percent extra in bus fare. It is yet to release a complete health protocol.
Dr Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said the country is going through one of the most difficult and tricky situations.
“If stringent precautions are not taken, the virus will move from cities to other regions where there are not many cases,” said Marasini. “Increased public mobility will mean the virus spreading to all parts of the country.”
Dashain is the time when the country normally sees increased public mobility, especially from Kathmandu, which on an average sess two million people leaving for their hometowns. And just after Dasahin, people start returning to Kathmandu.
People like Neupane who have travelled to home and back to Kathmandu during Dashain for years say in a country where rules are never followed even during normal times, it is difficult to be convinced that the authorities will be able to strictly implement Covid-19 safety protocols.
“In the past, I have seen buses squeezing passengers beyond capacity during Dashain,” said Neupane. “I am not convinced that they will take passengers just half the capacity during this Dashain if authorities do not ensure proper monitoring mechanisms.”
Public health experts say it will be unjust if people are not allowed to travel to their hometowns to meet with families and friends during the festive season while opening public movements could also lead to a surge in virus spread.
“This involves a great risk,” said Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, Teku. “The Dashain festival is such that people usually receive tika and blessings from the elderly. This increases the threat of people infecting the elderly.”
While members of the public are wary, public health experts say one of the best ways to break the transmission chain could be allowing only those to travel with negative polymerase chain reaction reports.
“It may be difficult but the best measure could be the government making polymerase chain reaction tests mandatory for people wishing to leave for their home districts,” said Pun.
Yogendra Karmacharya, chairman at the Federation of Nepalese National Transport Entrepreneurs, said they are yet to receive a complete health protocol from the government.
“We too are worried about passengers’ safety,” Karmacharya told the Post.
There are around 300 transport organisations under the federation from across the country. The federation oversees the operation of around 400,000 public vehicles.
The federation too had been pressing the government to resume public transport services, as around one million drivers and their assistants were rendered jobless due to the pandemic.
Every Dashain, long-haul public vehicles struggle to meet passengers’ demand and people packed like sardines in these buses is a common sight. In the pandemic, there are concerns how people could travel to their destinations avoiding the risk of contracting the virus.
“We are also working on some safety measures that public vehicles under the federation should follow during the festive season,” said Karmacharya. “We need to ensure physical distancing among passengers in the vehicles as well as at eateries where we stop for snacks and meals.”
One respite could be there may not be as many people as in the past this Dashain, as many of them who left the Capital before the lockdown have not returned.
According to the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, around 500,000 people left the Valley before the lockdown and 90 percent of them have not returned. Last Dashain, around 2 million people had left the Valley, according to the division.
There is no data on how many people from across the country travel during the festival season.
Gogan Bahadur Hamal, director general at the Department of Transport Management, said his office is working on the safety protocols to be followed by the bus operators and passengers.
“One of the safety measures we have proposed is PCR tests for passengers who want to take long-route buses. But I am not sure how feasible that is.”