As nations around the world prepare for coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, people involved in the informal sector of economy will be the hardest hit for managing their daily amenities, mostly in developing countries like Nepal. Social and financial protection fo the daily wage workers in the informal sector has always been a major issue in Nepal where more than 70 percent (ILO report, 2019) of the economically active population is involved. This issue has never been more critical than now when the country is in total lockdown, to curb the spread of this deadly virus. Another thing alarming is Nepal’s lack of preparedness toward scaling up it healthcare system, given the current handling capacity could be overwhelmed as the need for intensive care may surge in the near future.
Though the pandemic is shaking the whole globe right now, developed countries with comparatively small percentage of their workforce in the informal sector has to struggle less to cope with evolving unemployment issues. In the US, the government has passed a $2.2 trillion emergency relief package that, among others, would provide up to $1,200 in direct relief for American adults as compensation for temporary unemployment. In the United Kingdom, the government agreed to pay up to 80 percent of wages of workers not been able to work due to coronavirus crisis.
Meanwhile, the nationwide lockdown imposed by the Government of Nepal (GoN) is definitely a right move to minimize the spread of virus. The lockdown has, however, badly affected the low-income or daily wage workers in the informal sector as their livelihood options have come to a complete halt. These people are in desperate need of financial support in terms of relief packages to manage their basic necessities. Whilethe Indian government has already come with a set of policy measures to combat the economic impact of the fast-spreading coronavirus including some cash transfers to workers in the informal sector, ours is yet to declare any sort of such relief packages for the needy and poor.
One thing that may be stopping the government from bringing relief packages for informal workers is unavailability of data, which may be preventing them from making informed policies. There is the need that lives of informal workers are protected as well as their jobs are secured. But, this does not seem possible at this time. Learning from this tragic situation, when this pandemic goes way, the government should find ways to document the active workforce involved in the informal economy, keep measures of their inputs in the country’s overall economic activities and most importantly, develop social protection mechanism for them, especially considering the rough situations that may come again.
This is also the time when health workers worldwide have urged countries to step up measures that can keep reported cases at a level manageable for health-care systems, a concept known as ‘flattening the curve.’
Nepal has poor health-care services and lacks medical infrastructure, health personnel and equipment; is poorly prepared to handle a large-scale outbreak due to coronavirus. Hence, the need to scaling-up health facilities, in terms of medical equipment and health workers seems another key challenge for Nepal in this difficult time.
Even in major cities like Kathmandu where healthcare facilities seem in good numbers, subject to its dense population the danger of wider infection is just a few miles away, if no substantial efforts are made to upgrade its service. More worse is the situation in rural areas where people have far less access to scares health facilities. Nevertheless, the government has taken various precautions to prevent the spread of disease. Quarantine wards and temporary hospitals are being set up across the country and laboratory facilities are being expanded at provincial centers.
Despite these worthy steps by the government in expanding medical coverage to curb possible outbreak, much still remains to be done. First, there is the utmost need to upscale capacity of our laboratories for conducing more and more tests. More test of the samples will help map the actual level of spread of the infection. Second, hospitals need to multiply its present capacity for isolation wards with needed medical equipment as well as should increase the number of health workers. And, third, ensure availability of enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for our health workers as they are the first responders to the patients, and are themselves in high risk of infection.
This pandemic is a nightmare for all, but rather than panicking we should act responsibly. The government should come up with holistic approach to address multi-dimensional challenges arising while dealing with this pandemic. The most important thing is we should together care for those hardest hit, and reduce our blind spots to risks in this time of coronavirus.
(Shrestha is a PhD scholar in Theoretical Economic at Peking University and Joshi the Chairperson of SCOPE Nepal)