The government of Nepal officially announced that the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown enforced since March 24th would be coming to an end from midnight on July 21st. The Minister of Information and Communications announced that “the government has determined that since the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is going down, and public is aware of precautions that need to be taken, we can start opening the lockdown but if the infection rate goes up again, the lockdown could be re-imposed.”
The lifting of lockdown in Nepal has also lifted spirits in a manner that would have seemed inconceivable four months ago. With most restrictions on the movement of people and vehicles removed, life at least in the capital appears to have gone back to normal with offices resumed, people frequenting restaurants, and meeting with friends and family. Although the direction of lifting the lockdown should be welcomed, as prolonging such strict measures adversely impact the economy, livelihood, and mental health. However, the false sense of security that has come from lifting the lockdown can be risky because cases have continued to rise and there is no robust mechanism in place to deal with a possible outbreak. The WHO representative to Nepal has warned that “the end of lockdown does not mean going back to the life before lockdown”. In these circumstances, the announcement to end the lockdown appears premature and rushed.
The government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed gaps between hogwash and reality. The chaotic coordination between various levels of government, the failure to procure essential equipment for testing, the continued use of RDT kits for diagnosis instead of surveillance purposes, corruption, denial, and other failures in managing the pandemic has shattered illusions of competence. The WHO has warned that coronavirus lockdowns must only be lifted when a government’s contact tracing system has proven to be robust and effective. However, it appears that the government lacks an exit strategy from the restrictions in the same manner it haphazardly imposed the lockdown when the pandemic first began to unravel. An exit strategy must be based on the risk assessment of a country’s context and Nepal appears to still be in an active phase of the pandemic.
The government has denied trends of community transmission, disregarding warnings from public health officials on the need to ramp up testing and contact tracing. The Ministry of Health maintains that we are still in the cluster stage, as per the WHO definition. However, whether we are in the cluster or community spread stage is a moot point because this is an unfolding pandemic, and total caseloads are still rising exponentially in neighboring India and around the world. Furthermore, once safety measures are relaxed, contact tracing becomes the key with greater reason.
The government garbled communication with citizens, even failing to articulate the primary purpose of a blanket lockdown. Daily press briefings provided updates on new cases, number of tests conducted, covid-19 related deaths, and number of recovered patients but failed to communicate what the lockdown was achieving for Nepal. Once lockdowns were lifted, cases spiked up here and there. That was always going to be true. However, incapability to respond to such developments may defeat any purpose the lockdown may have served.
The government must make active efforts in launching a nationwide awareness campaign with the message that the lockdown may be over but the pandemic is not. Furthermore, the campaign should highlight safety protocols and precautions. Since it is expected that cases will rise after restrictions are relaxed, the government should ramp up efforts in mass community testing and contact tracing. It is not safe to lift a lockdown until we know more about the virus, however, gradually removing restrictions in phases, strict enforcement of safety protocols, and taking personal precautions will allow the country to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
Author: Shuvangi Poudyal; Poudyal is a research fellow at CESIF-Nepal.