COVID-19 in Nepal: Low Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

With over 1.5 million cases globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in countries with the strongest existing healthcare systems, while countries with weaker economies and healthcare infrastructure face an especially steep challenge as the virus spreads. Nepal is one such case, struggling to manage and mobilize resources needed to address the spread of the COVID-19. Nepal reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on January 23, from a student returning from Wuhan province – the original epicenter of the virus.

As of April 9, the total number of confirmed cases in Nepal has reached 9, with one recovered patient. The Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) reported that a total of 2895 tests had been carried out across Nepal — with two call centers in place to provide telephonic assistance to its citizens. However, considering the number of people with potential symptoms, the number of tests per day has remained low — exposing the country to higher risk. The number of confirmed cases in Nepal remains substantially low, but this is not due to the precautions taken by the government. Instead, this is due to inadequate health facilities, including the low number of tests, shortage of testing kits, and required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the medical staff. After the initial three test labs, the health department has designated seven more temporary test labs across Nepal. For now, Nepal has received logistical support from the World Bank, as well as India and China. While the lack of precaution has exposed poor governance in Nepal, the rise in the COVID-19 cases will have a critical impact on the two cardinal industries namely tourism and foreign employment that have stood as the two major pillars of Nepal’s economy.

While the lack of precaution has exposed poor governance in Nepal, the rise in the COVID-19 cases will have a critical impact on the two cardinal industries namely tourism and foreign employment that have stood as the two major pillars of Nepal’s economy.

Missing Precaution

Contrary to the responses of many of its regional neighbors, as no new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported, the government declared Nepal a “Coronavirus Free Zone” in late February. With China to its north and one of the early cases of COVID-19 outside of China, Nepal could have taken steps towards greater precautions; however, time was lost in taking pride rather than preparing the health facilities in the country. By mid-February, several countries, including China, the United States, India, and Germany had issued advisories on international travel, but Nepal failed to do the same until mid-March.

Although the country has since instituted a national lockdown, the Government of Nepal has come under massive criticism for ignoring the early warning signs of the potential outbreak of the COVID-19 cases in Nepal, especially after passengers of a flight from Beijing had entered Nepal without any screening. It was later on March 29 that the Government launched a dedicated website for information on COVID-19.

Tourism and the End of “Visit Nepal 2020”

Nepal draws in substantial crowds of tourists each year for trekking and mountaineering, with reportedly over 1.5 million tourists in 2019. In 2018 the tourism industry contributed to 7.9 percent of Nepal’s GDP. The revenue was expected to double after the Government of Nepal had announced the year 2020 as the tourism year through its “Visit Nepal 2020” campaign – aiming to receive 2 million tourists in 2020 alone. However, amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Secretary of Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Kedar Bahadur Adhikari reported that the campaign has been suspended. Meanwhile, prior to COVID-19 outbreak, “Visit Nepal 2020” was under criticism due to unpreparedness of the government and poor infrastructure in terms of the airport and road connectivity, and broader issues with corruption.

Remittances

In recent years, foreign employment has become the most sought after means of employment in Nepal, and remittances contribute to a significant portion of Nepal’s GDP – contributing to 28 percent to national GDP in 2018. It is estimated that until recently, 1,500 Nepali workers were leaving every day for the Middle East, Malaysia, and South Korea and – with a previously open border – approximately two million Nepali workers in India. However, the ban on international travel will have long term impact on Nepal’s economy. Considering the contributions made by its citizens working abroad, the Government response has been feeble amidst COVID-19 in extending timely help and support to them, especially those who are still stuck at the checkpoints at Nepal-India border.

The Nepali government has asked citizens living abroad to remain in host countries. With the closure of the international travel to Nepal on March 22, many who wish to return have no option but to stay. The situation with Nepali migrant workers in India, however, has differed due to the long, shared border. After India declared a complete lockdown of the country on March 24, India, hundreds of the Nepalese migrant workers took the roads and attempted to enter Nepal through border checkpoints, but they have been stopped by the authorities on the Nepalese side. Due to lack of the quarantine facilities at the border checkpoints, these workers have been waiting to reach their homes. Social distancing has become another critical concern that may cause a further panic over the spread of the epidemic at border crossings.

Shortage of Supplies and Regional Relations

Nepal’s GDP primarily depends on agriculture (27 percent) and the service sector (59.9 percent), with industrial development accounting for less than 15 percent, meaning Nepal will have difficulty maintaining the routine availability of food, medicine, and petroleum products. Difficulties will be compounded by the fact that Nepal is a landlocked country between India and China and amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Nepal has closed its borders with these two neighbors. Although the Government has ordered the local authorities to ensure resume trade at some border points with China, the delays from poor roads through a mountainous terrain will delay the supplies. Traditionally, India has provided logistical support to Nepal in such emergencies, but considering the 2015 episode where a blockade like the situation at the India-Nepal border had caused acute shortage of petroleum products, food items, and medical supplies to Nepal, India remains a secondary hope to Nepal. Nepal is now looking towards China as an alternative to India even though India continues to be Nepal’s largest trading partner.

Nepal is now looking towards China as an alternative to India even though India continues to be Nepal’s largest trading partner.

On the other hand, strained Nepal-India relations have proved to be a golden opportunity for China as it allows Beijing an opportunity to minimize India’s overall influence in Nepal as well as address some of its own interests in Tibet. Hence, in Nepal’s efforts to contain COVID-19, China is attempting to be at the forefront in providing help, including the supply of medical equipment. Although India has successfully initiated a potential regional response to COVID-19 using the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation as a platform, where Nepal is also a member, its success remains to be seen.

Conclusion

A decade long civil war and the 2015 earthquake could have served as a precaution for the government to focus on the welfare of its citizens by building industries, health facilities, and strengthening the emergency response. However, in the absence of an effective national development plan, the country still relies on foreign funding for infrastructure development in the country. As the worries and panic mount in Nepal regarding the future course to contain COVID-19 cases, the country needs to work in coordination with its people to assure social distancing and success of the ongoing lockdown to contain COVID-19. Still, Nepal needs to be prepared for the unexpected blow in the longer run.

Editor’s Note: SAV contributors analyze how governments in the region are responding to the spread of COVID-19, as well as the potential far-reaching economic and security impacts of the pandemic. Read the entire series  here

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Image 1: USAID via Flickr

Image 2: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP via Getty Images

Posted in , China, COVID-19 in South Asia, Development, Economy, India, Nepal

Rishi Gupta

Rishi Gupta

Rishi Gupta is an Indian Council for Social Science (ICSSR) Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Kathmandu based Asian Institute of Diplomacy and Intranational Affairs (AIDIA). He has completed his MPhil in Foreign Policy Studies from University of Calcutta and Masters in South Asian Studies from the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Institute for South Asia Regional Cooperation (UMISARC) at Pondicherry University. An awardee of the prestigious South Asian Foundation Fellowship, Rishi attended the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China as an Exchange Fellow in 2017. He is a regular contributor to the Indian English daily- The Pioneer. With ten years of research experience, he has extensively written on Nepal’s political, security and foreign affairs.

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