When the 19-year-old returnee from France tested positive, the level of online vitriol showed not only Nepali society’s misogyny but also the lack of information on COVID-19.
People seem to feel that it is possible to keep the virus at bay forever. But this is a globalized world and the cat is out of the bag. I am not an expert on this but what I understand is, this virus will come for us one day, whether we like it or not. As a nation, we can either be prepared for it, or we can be paralyzed with fear.
I am sitting in a country that might have got it all wrong by not controlling the virus on time. In the UK the numbers of tested cases was just three in the beginning of February. By now, thousands of people from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to, hundreds of heath workers have been infected. More than 1,000 people have already died. The numbers show no signs of slowing down and the health system is threatening to cave in. Like every country, the UK does not have enough ventilators or ICU, or hospital beds – and health workers are lamenting the severe lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). By the end of this crisis, several thousand will lose their lives. As there is limited testing, there is no saying how many have really got it. According to a story from Oxford University, half of UK’s population might have already contracted COVID-19.
The good news is, Nepal has already slowed down the spread of the virus with the lockdown. It means instead of spreading like wildfire – from one person to three people to nine, the rate will slow down dramatically. According to a Channel 4 interview of Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine of University College London, as many as 59,000 people can be infected by a single person by the time the virus covers ten cycles. If you break the cycle, the infection rate slows significantly. The lockdown in Nepal means that we have time to plan. It means that we can get our health system in a better place, a chance for the nation to come and work together.
Nepal and the UK went into a lockdown on the same day. Here, the lockdown still means that shops are open for essentials like food and medicine. People are expected to shop for the basic necessities but just once a week. They are expected to step out and exercise once a day but maintain a two-meter distance. Delivery services are more active than ever. Essential services like water, electricity, garbage disposal are still working. Appreciation for UK’s National Health Service, the NHS has been heartwarming to see. Five star restaurants have been delivering food for NHS staff and stores have been open exclusively for them. Half a million people have signed up to support them – from delivering goods to taking phone calls for them.
In these times of crisis, the pecking order has changed. The crisis has shown the importance of the people who have been paid the worst – shop workers, garbage cleaners and delivery van operators. Police are imposing fines on people traveling for no reason. And the government has put together a plan to rescue the economy – an injection of money into the economy, including income support for people who can’t go to work.
I am not suggesting the exact same methods would work in Nepal. But there can be measures taken to ensure that basic essential services are provided to people - from food to garbage collection, from water to medicines. Essential services cannot be stopped – the mode of working can be modified.
Mahabir Pun has shown us that there are ways to innovate – can companies like KTM city/ ANTA and other clothes manufacturer mass-produce PPEs? Can local tailors be employed in the process? Can engineering students look to produce masks or life-saving equipment? What kinds of 3D printing can we use? Unlike the time of the earthquake, Nepal has a local and provincial government which can mobilize locally and it is the perfect time for the leadership to show that electing them was worth it. Some have already shown the quality of their leadership. It also gives the federal government the time to show their mettle and rescue and repatriate the poorest and the neediest. Like the men in UAE, forced to sleep in parks. Like the hundreds of thousand of Nepalis who are taking the arduous journey of coming back home from India, after Modi’s lockdown. They may need to be quarantined but coming home is their right.
This is also the time for the government to show that they can plan beyond themselves. It means reaching out to health professionals from Nepal ,and coordinate with the Chinese counterparts who have experiences dealing with COVID-19. Our health professionals will be the ones who are constantly exposed to the virus and will take on immense stress. I’ve been in contact with some friends who are doctors here and some in New York. They express sadness, and distress as more patients die. Health staff will need all the protection and support that we can give.
For the media practitioners, it means that we need to get the right messages out – to the furthest corners – messages that will allow people to plan and prepare, and protect the most vulnerable from the disease.
For our leaders, this also means letting go of the hubris of the two-third majority government and calling out to people from all sectors who would be able to help out, coming up with an economic plan that will save people from losing their jobs and livelihood, devising a rescue plan that will save everyday workers from death by hunger. This virus calls for kindness and compassion, along with strong foresight and planning from Nepal’s leadership. This responsibility falls on our ailing prime minster to social media influencers - what leaders say and show is now more important than ever.
While I am writing this, I have been coughing. My chest feels leaden. I fluctuate between energy and exhaustion. These are mild symptoms of COVID-19. Luckily, my family went straight into a quarantine mode, controlling the spread of the virus with us. As of now, the mortality rate from the virus is calculated between 1% to 3.4%. But if we infect the small proportion who might get their complications, their chances of survival becomes slim, especially if they don’t get hospital support.
Unlike the time of the quake, we won’t have the world looking out for us. Our country has survived many disasters and this is just one of many. Fear of the virus will get us nowhere but foresight and planning will help us navigate this pandemic.