Uddhab Pyakurel

The first outbreak of coronavirus pandemic which is named COVID-19, was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March 2020. Even after several efforts such as travel restrictions, quarantines, curfews, event postponements and cancellations, and facility closures, etc. were made to prevent the virus spreading, 638,146 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in over 203 countries and territories, resulting in 30,039 deaths as of 30 March, 2020. This article addresses the situation in Nepal with specific focus on the Nepalese government response to the pandemic and the reactions of the general public under this global crisis.

Issue of Evacuating Nepalis from Wuhan

With the spread of the virus from Wuhan to all 22 provinces of China by the first week of February, many western countries started rescuing their citizens from Wuhan. Countries around the world were scrambling to evacuate their citizens from China, but the Nepal government neither had any immediate plan to bring Nepalis back from Wuhan, nor had any serious discussion about how to tackle the situation. In the meantime, Nepali embassy in China had identified 180 students in Wuhan to be rescued, but the Health Ministry ruled out evacuating Nepalese from China by stating that there was “hardly any difference between staying in China or retuning back to the country”. In addition, there was also brewing a debate about whether it was USA rather than China spreading the coronavirus. Narayan Man Bijukchhe, Chair of Nepal Workers and Peasants Party was one of such public figures expressing such suspicion in public on the February 8, 2020.

After the mounting pressure from every corner of Nepali society, the government decided on the February 6 to bring the Nepalese students home from China . When the government informed the Parliament about this decision, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi gave an interview to Nepali media and expressed her concerns that evacuating Nepali nationals from Wuhan could further spread the disease. She even questioned Nepal’s ability to execute its decision: “If the Nepali side insists on evacuating its nationals, it is advised that the relevant departments of the Nepali side be fully prepared in terms of airport quarantine, epidemic prevention and control, and seek the advice of the WHO representative in Nepal to prevent the epidemic from spreading”. On the eve of the rescue of Nepali citizens from Wuhan, Ambassador Hou Yanqi posted a twitter message on February 15 saying “the shock of the epidemic is temporary. The fundamentals of China’s long-term economic development remain unchanged. And the pace of China-Nepal friendly cooperation will not be delayed”. Eventually Nepali government sent its own aircraft to rescue Nepalese from China on February 16, and the flight departed from Wuhan with 175 Nepalese citizens. Nepali government also donated 100,000 units of protective masks to China as a gesture of friendship and solidarity.

Travel Restrictions and flights with China

As of February 6, 2020, more than 50 countries or territories had imposed travel restrictions and tightened visa requirements to Chinese nationals. Certain countries such as Australia even announced to ban entry of passengers who had transited through or have been in mainland China since February 1. Similarly India also invalided visas or e-visa issued to mainland China nationals on February 5 and also denied entry of the passengers who have been in mainland China since mid-January. In Nepal, the government suspended issuing on-arrival visa for Chinese nationals entering Nepal for 15 days on March 2 (10 days later the government decided to stop issuing tourist visa to all countries and non-residential Nepalese overseas). The Supreme Court also issued an interim order to the government asking it to stop flights to and from countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak in order to protect public health.

After the court ruling came in response to a public interest litigation, the government issued a travel advisory requesting Nepalese from making non-essential travel to countries affected by COVID-19 including China, South Korea, Iran, Japan and Italy, but could not take decision to stop flights coming from China. Government chose the option to face pressure and heavy criticism from every corner of Nepali society. All five Chinese air carriers—Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Sichuan Airlines, and Tibet Airlines, and one Nepal-China joint venture Himalaya Airlines—continued operating flights between Nepal and Chinese cities of Chongqing, Beijing, Changsha, Guiyang and Shenzhen. It is worth mentioning that Chinese airlines have 48 flights to Nepal per week, but Nepal Airlines, the national flag carrier, has not even acquired a permit to fly to China[1].

Nepalese waited till March 15, when the government banned all passengers, including Nepalese, from entering Nepal from European Union territories, including the United Kingdom, West Asia, Gulf countries and countries such as Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. The ban came into effect from March 20 midnight and will remain in place until April 15. By the time Nepal formally banned flights, almost all Chinese airliners had decided to cancel or reduce its flights to Nepal due to lack of passengers. 

State of Corona Pandemic in Nepal and Assistance from India and China

As of March 30th, Nepal has confirmed the fifth coronavirus positive case in the country, witnessed no death due to it. But general public could not be convinced with the numbers. It is due to the fact that Nepal has done far less testing than any other nation. The identified five were amongst 885 coronavirus tested. In fact, , the government of Nepal has not taken any initiative to test family members of the people infected with coronavirus for the infection despite suggestions of the World Health Organization and public health experts. As government refers, the main reason is that the state does not have enough testing kits, and even test labs. It is taking 4-5 days to get test reports as the sample has to come all the way to the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Teku, the only hospital with testing labs for the treatment of the coronavirus. Another problem Nepal faces is the lack of intensive care unit (ICU) beds which are very essential facilities for corona patient. If one counts ICU beds in all five major public hospitals in Kathmandu, less than 50 such beds are available today, and some of them are dedicated ICU beds—surgery ICU, neonatal ICU, and pediatric ICU—which cannot be used for corona patients. Private hospitals are not much bothered to engage with the pandemic.

In the meantime, Nepal has decided to impose a-week long lockdown, started from March 24, and also decided to accept medical and logistical assistance from China and India, and billionaire Jack Ma. The decision was made after a series of concerns showed by two neighbors, India and China, to help Nepal combat coronavirus. When Nepal identified its very first coronavirus case, the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu wrote a letter to Nepal asking if it needed anything from China. The letter, which was quoted by various media outlets, reads, “Does Nepal want any support and aid from China? For example, in energy? Do we need to send a medical team with masks and other medical supplies? We are ready anytime.”

On the other hand, India, another big neighbor of Nepal, also promised such assistance in different ways. In a video conference on March 15, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested the leaders and representatives from 7 neighboring countries to stand together to tackle coronavirus. He also proposed to create a ‘COVID-19 Emergency Fund’ that would be funded by voluntary contributions from the SAARC member nations, and offered $10 million as an initial contribution from India’s side to this fund. India also offered the assistance of Rapid Response Team of doctors and specialists, along with testing kits and equipment to the SAARC nations. But it seems that promises from both the countries are rhetoric only. The two neighbors seem to be competing each other to offer support but the proposals seem not free from their geo-political rivalry. The Chinese offered assistance after Modi’s initiative to bring all the SAARC countries together. A Similar proposal was received from Indian government according to which sending a rapid response team of medical personnel to support the coronavirus controlling initiatives of Nepal.

However, the Nepali government has stressed that it needs medical equipment more than the personnel currently, and could receive vital personal protective equipment (PPE) including 3,000 face masks, 2,500 face shields, 2,000 shoe covers, 2,100 surgical caps, 1,000 trousers and tunics, and 10 thermo flash thermometers from the government of United States.  In fact, the U.S. government Office of Defense Cooperation had handed over seven sets of medical personal protection equipment, 400 sets of latex gloves, and 110 biohazard bags to the Nepal Army to assist with the quarantine of students evacuated from the city of Wuhan.

As far as neighbors are concerned, India has offered only assistance of a rapid response team with medical equipment (but could not materialized as the proposal is yet to be accepted by Nepal) whereas China has assured to provide medical equipment as per the requisition of the Nepal government. The Chinese officials, on the one hand, have said that they have already started the process of collecting the equipment and within a week, they will be airlifted to Nepal.

Nepal, on the other hand, could not bring 2,000 sets of coronavirus testing kits which were donated by a Chinese company, Savanta Biotechnology to Nepal’s Embassy in Beijing. The given reason was sub-standard quality of kits, but the reality was different. One source said that the Chinese government has stopped the delivery of the kits midway after finding out the kits don’t fall under a list of health related security materials to be donated to Nepal by China. Given the fact, the Nepal government had decided to seek private sector’s help in procuring necessary medicine and equipment needed to treat patients from abroad to avoid the lengthy public procurement process.

Uddhab Pyakurel is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Master Program at the School of Arts of Kathmandu University, Nepal.

Notes


[1] Nepal Airlines had applied to Chinese authorities for flying Kathmandu-Guangzhou route since 2015.

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