Nepal braces for a return to locked-down life as rise in Covid-19 cases rings alarm bellsEarlier date of August 17 for resumption of flights, long-distance bus travel, and start of school admissions has been pushed back by at least 15 days.
Three weeks after lifting the lockdown, the federal government has given local administrations and governments the authority to decide on restrictions and lockdown measures as Covid-19 cases continue to rise.
“The districts with more than 200 active cases of coronavirus can impose necessary restrictions. We have not imposed the nationwide lockdown and the Cabinet has decided not to,” said Finance and Information and Communication Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada, making public the government’s decisions on Covid-19 containment on Tuesday.
The restriction orders, however, could lead to similar situations as lockdown at some places, according to Khatiwada.
Other containment measures include restrictions on domestic and international passenger flights until August 31. The government had announced on July 20 that flights, both domestic and international, would be allowed from August 17.
Long distance buses will now be allowed to ply from September 1.
All educational institutions including schools, colleges, tuition centres and training centres will remain closed. No date for their opening has been announced.
The government on July 20 had said schools could take admissions from August 17 but according to the announcement on Tuesday this has been pushed back by 15 days.
Restaurants have been limited to takeaway services and all non-essential services like salons, shopping malls, theatres must remain closed, according to the new government directive.
Hotels were told to prepare for guests as international flights had been earlier scheduled to start arriving from August 17, but that too has been pushed back by 15 days.
“After assessing the risk, the local administrations and local units can take the necessary decisions,” said Khatiwada, who is also the government spokesperson.
The government’s unplanned and abrupt decision to cover up for its shortcomings, however, has worried many.
“We [hoteliers] are increasingly worried about the future. There are holes in the government’s Covid-19 response plan and we are becoming the long-term sufferers,” said Binayak Shah, senior vice president of the Hotel Association of Nepal.
“We were asked to resume business, and accordingly we started bookings and had started calling employees back to work. Now we are in a dilemma. Our clients will not trust us anymore.”
A senior official at the Home Ministry said that around 40 district administrations and local governments have already imposed various kinds of restrictions, lockdowns and curfews, and sealed border crossings since the lifting of the nationwide lockdown on July 21.
There were demands on Sunday from mayors of Kathmandu Valley to seal all entry points to Kathmandu Valley and a total ban on public vehicles.
But the Cabinet rejected the proposal, said an official at the Prime Minister’s Office.
As of Tuesday, Nepal has reported 23,948 Covid-19 cases with 83 deaths. The Health Ministry said on Tuesday that 638 new cases and four deaths were confirmed in the last 24 hours. A total of 10,462 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were performed.
“The worry is that the numbers may increase further because several local bodies have reported that the coronavirus has spread in the community,” the official told the Post on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media .
Businesses want a proper plan and have described the government decision as “haphazard”.
“We started bookings as soon as the government asked us to restart the business. Now, the situation is uncertain again,” said Shah.
Another official from one domestic airline told the Post that they had sold over 20 percent of seats on sale in most of the sectors but things are uncertain now.
“We haven’t yet decided whether to refund or tell passengers to wait for another two weeks to travel. We are not sure what another decision could be. But it’s frustrating,” the official said, requesting anonymity as he doesn't want to openly criticise the government’s decision.
Tourism Ministry Secretary Kedar Bahadur Adhikari told the Post that it’s not the ministry that makes decisions on when to allow the resumption of flights.
“We follow the Coronavirus Crisis Management Committee’s directives,” he said.
The Tourism Ministry has been told to prepare guidelines for testing, quarantine and other measures for tourists once the country is open.
“We are working on the guidelines,” said Adhikari.
Though Monday’s Cabinet meeting took a slew of decisions, the government stopped short of making them public the same day.
At least two ministers the Post spoke with said that the meeting decided to continue restrictions at all entry points to the country until September 16 midnight, except for goods and cargo movements and Nepalis returning home.
The meeting also decided to designate 10 entry points on the Nepal-India border for people’s movement. People were allowed to enter through 20 border points prior to the decision.
Government and private offices, banks, cooperatives, financial institutions and other organisations are allowed to mobilise only 50 percent of their employees in districts which have more than 200 coronavirus cases, as well as in Kathmandu Valley.
Offices where services through online, virtual or electronic mediums are not possible should be closed until further decision, the Cabinet has decided.
Buying and selling vegetables, fruits, clothes on footpaths and roadsides, open places, pushcarts and bicycles, and collection of scrap have been banned all over the country.
The government has said that such activities could become leading causes of virus transmission.
Factories can operate only if they set up private quarantine ensuring strict health protocols for their workers. All large construction projects and industrial areas should provide food and shelter for their workers inside their premises.
Pashupati Murarka, former president of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry who is also the owner of Murarka Organisation, told the Post on Monday that such provision may be possible only in big factories because they have enough spaces.
“It may be an important decision considering the increase in Covid-19 cases but it’s not practical at all,” Murarka told the Post on Monday.
All religious activities except daily worship at temples have been restricted. The government has said festivals should be observed among the family members at their homes following health protocols.
International arrivals through passenger repatriation flights have been limited to 500 people—300 based on recommendations by diplomatic missions and 200 under the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund’s repatriation programme.
The arrivals will be quarantined in Kathmandu Valley and sent home once they test negative for the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry will take the responsibility to test returnees after five-seven days of their arrival.
Travelling has been restricted to and from the districts with more than 200 infections except those with permission from respective District Covid-19 Crisis Management Centres and local governments.
Passes can be issued only for essential purposes, according to officials.
Analysing the rate of increase in the number of infections, necessary beds would be managed to keep the patients in isolation, said Khatiwada.