Have Nepal’s People Managed a Healthy Breakthrough in the Covid-19 Crisis?

“We’re all going to die!” This feeble appeal came in a Facebook phonecall with B. Thapa from his village in the Nepal’s eastern hills.

Our conversation was in early March when news headlines from Italy and the U.S. began to alarm Nepalis. With no information about the spread of the disease in his country, this schoolteacher assumed a bleak scenario. “If advanced European and American societies are swamped with this disease, unable to control it, what can we expect?”

Indeed. The country has a porous 1,000 mile border with India; it has no national health system and the current government (Maoist/Communist-led!) has promoted private clinics and hospitals over public facilities; its leader, Prime Minister Oli, just had a second kidney transplant without naming any surrogate leader to handle the crisis; there’s almost no medical equipment of the kind needed to test Covid-19; hundreds of thousands of approximately five million migrant workers abroad whose remittances keep Nepal economically afloat are now jobless and heading home; and Kathmandu’s swollen population, fearful of congestion in the city, are fleeing to their villages across the land, possibly carrying the virus with them.

Thapa’s fear is repeated by others I speak to. I know about his nation’s truly weak medical system; I agree that the administration is incompetent and deeply corrupt. Yet, I argue, “Nepal’s many doctors will ensure no one hides the facts. You have an aggressive free press now; it will expose any sign of the epidemic and force government action.”

At that time, a month ago, there had been no reported Covid-19 deaths in Nepal, and three infected individuals—all traced to Nepalis who’d arrived from abroad. No one believed those figures; the public’s past experience on a host of issues and endemic corruption in official circles results in widespread cynicism; the government cannot handle this crisis, they say. Most Nepalis, like millions of people across the globe, depend on remittances from overseas workers, and food imports (since the outflow of labor left fields uncultivated). What options do Nepalis have to handle a looming epidemic?

Without warning, the government announced a countrywide lockdown. Everyone was to remain in their homes. Schools and businesses were ordered closed. The quarantine is as severe as anywhere in the world, perhaps with the exception of China. Only policemen are seen in the lanes and roads. A colleague in Lahan village in Janakpur near India exclaims that even motorbikes and rickshaw bicycles are prohibited on local roads. Shopping for food is restricted; inter-city buses are halted; remittance agencies and banks are closed. Police and special security forces are deployed to Nepal’s border with India to prevent Nepali laborers who work in India from returning home, creating Nepali refugee camps inside India.

There was one announcement of Chinese medical supplies arriving by air (ordered by the U.N. Population Fund and various embassies). Otherwise thirty million Nepalis seemed to be on their own.

Six weeks into the pandemic, one has to scroll far down the coronavirus world register (ranked by number of infections)– past New Zealand with 16 deaths, Japan (323), Singapore (12), Cuba, (43), Ghana (9), Lebanon (22), etc. to find Nepal–with zero deaths and just 43 infections reported (as of April 23, 2020).

Many citizens simply don’t believe their government figures. They argue it’s incapable of even registering the cases. Some Nepali news outlets call out the administration’s incompetence. On the other hand, many citizens suggest that low rate is indeed a result of their strict adherence to the lockdown and the police’s zero tolerance of any defiance of the quarantine. Privately people adopt simple home remedies and advice gleaned from the internet. Families remain especially attentive to the abundant deities they live with and worship. And traditional places of refuge—temples and ashrams whose custodians offer hospitality at any time—are expanding their capacity to feed the needy.

Today, criticism of Nepal’s passive administration is surprisingly tepid. For weeks, returning overseas migrant laborers languished at the border camps. Many jobless men were forced to walk 10-14 days from their workplaces in one part of Nepal to reach their home village. The government seemed insensitive. (Finally, on April 17, Nepal’s Supreme Court  ruled that the government must provide transport to those walking from Kathmandu and other cities to their destination.)

“We watch what’s happening overseas. Without the service structure other countries have, we must adopt this strict regime,” another colleague insists. “We have no equipment, no medical facilities, no capable governmental services, and no real leadership.”

In another month, we will have a clearer picture of Nepal’s state of health. If the nation misses this plague, it’s severe adherence to the simple formula of distancing and lockdown should bolster national confidence. It could be the start of a needed course of self-reliance.

B. Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Her latest book is Justice Stories, a children’s book about Nepali women rebels. Find her work at www.barbaranimri.com.