A second wave prompting a new exodusFearing lockdown, people are leaving Valley to avoid the trouble they faced last year.
On Thursday, Eliza Bagale along with her two kids and mother-in-law, left Kathmandu for her village in Lamjung fearing the new variant of the coronavirus that has been spreading in Kathmandu Valley.
“My son’s school has been closed since Monday, and, of course, my village is much safer than Kathmandu,” said the mother of six-year-old Elite, who is in kindergarten, and a 10-month-old daughter before she left.
“I heard that the new virus is more fatal for kids, and it would be hard for us to live here if the government announces yet another lockdown,” said Bagale, 29, who used to run a cosmetic shop and also made dolls.
According to the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, the UK variant of the coronavirus, known as B.1.1.7, has been infecting a significant number of children.
Bagale, who gave birth to her daughter on June 28 amid the lockdown last year, still remembers the nightmare she had to go through.
“I could not go to my village as my daughter was in my womb,” she said. “Even after I gave birth to my baby girl, my mother and close relatives could not come to meet me as there was total restriction on mobility.”
“If only I had been back in my village during the lockdown, things would have been easier,” she said.
There are others too leaving Kathmandu Valley with the second wave of infections here and fearing a lockdown.
Durga Singh Thakuri and his wife also left their rented room at Bakhundol, Lalitpur on Thursday for their village in Kalikot.
“Last year I was stuck here for four months due to the nationwide lockdown. Many people walked to their homes on foot, but my village is too far and it’s not possible to walk there,” said Thakuri, 24, who worked as a security guard at a private firm.
He said one of the reasons for leaving Kathmandu is to take his wife back to his village, as he has recently been recruited in the Nepal Army.
“I am taking all my belongings to my village because if another lockdown is imposed, I can’t pay the room rent here,” said Thakuri.
Last year, the government had announced a nationwide lockdown for four months starting from March 24 after the country reported only two cases of Covid-19.
Immediately after the lockdown was imposed, thousands as a last resort took arduous journeys hundreds of kilometres long on foot to their homes with no bus services available.
According to the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, over 465,972 people left the Valley last year after the government enforced the lockdown while hundreds of others were forced to walk to their hometowns on foot.
“As the number of cases is growing rapidly in Kathmandu, sooner or later the government will impose another lockdown,” said Bagale, whose husband recently sold her cosmetic shop that remained closed for nearly a year as she had had a child and sales were poor.
Her husband works in a private company that designs homes and she fears that if the lockdown persists, he will lose his job.
After the government announced the closure of academic institutions in Kathmandu Valley and a slew of restrictions on Monday, students in the Valley too have started leaving for their hometowns, as the second wave grips the country.
Sugam Shrestha, an undergraduate student at a private college in Kathmandu, is planning to leave Kathmandu on Sunday for his hometown in Birendranagar Municipality, Surkhet.
“My college is closed for two more weeks and I am afraid that if the government imposes a lockdown I will be stuck here,” said Shrestha, 19, who stays in a hostel in New Baneshwor.
He said some of his friends from college have already left for home.
“It’s safe in my hometown because here in Kathmandu, the number of Covid-19 cases has been increasing every day,” said Shrestha.
However, according to the traffic police, the number of people leaving the Valley is not significant so far.
“We have seen some people leaving the Valley with their kids but not many,” said Superintendent of Police Shyam Krishna Adhikari, also the spokesperson of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division. “But more will leave in the coming days as the number of infections is rising every day in the Valley.”
On Friday, the country reported five Covid-19-related fatalities with 2,449 new cases and 110 positive antigen tests. Of these, Kathmandu Valley alone reported 940 new infections in the past 24 hours.
Even as the number of cases in Kathmandu continues to rise, traffic data shows more people are entering the Valley than leaving it. On Thursday, 39,088 people left the Valley while the number of new arrivals was 41,686.
Virologists say the situation is getting out of hand as it is grim in border cities like Nepaljung and Birgunj.
“The government needs to be extra alert,” said Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of the Clinical Research Unit at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital.
People are leaving the city because at least in their hometowns, they will not die of hunger in case there is another lockdown and their memories of last year are troubling, Pun said.
One thing that the pandemic has exposed is the economic divide in society, economists say.
“Poor people need to go to the field for work and they are exposed to greater risk of infection,” said Jagadish Chandra Pokharel, an economist and former vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission. “But well-to-do people can stay home as they can store food, and can take all precautions against the disease.”
With the pandemic not going away soon, the government needs to learn lessons from the past but it does not seem to have done that, according to Suresh Dhakal an anthropologist.
“Last year, the civil society was more proactive in serving the poor than the government that did nothing for the poor and the marginalised community,” Dhakal said.
But neither the federal government nor local governments have data on the poor and the marginalised and there seems to be no political will to gather such data.
“Many local level governments do not have the data, that’s why they can’t reach out to the poor and economically marginalised communities, and still we do not see the willingness of the government to reach out to them,” added Pokharel.
This is not lost on Bagale.
“My husband is managing the things here but he will also come to the village soon,” said Bagale. “We are planning to stay in the village. At least there we will not die of hunger and need not think about paying rent. It is certain that the government won’t give us food in case there is a lockdown.”