Reopening cities requires a careful balance between preventive measures and a gradual opening of essential activities.
Fight against Covid-19 will be a long term battle for Nepal. Vaccines will not become available before 2021 and medicines, not before autumn. For a country like Nepal, widespread availability of medicine and vaccines will be possible only much later than for the developed countries. This means that things will not get back to normal for a few more years.
At present, given Nepal’s lack of capacity, the only effective option has been social distancing and a strict lockdown. However, over the longer term, extended and intermittent lockdowns will not be sustainable. Therefore, at one point, Nepal must start to think of opening up, though gradually.
But how prepared is Nepal to open up?
Globally, some countries have shown how to open up after a pandemic. Many experts have also suggested strategies. Such a strategy for a country like Nepal must be different and be based on our existing capacity. But the government, at present, does not appear to have the capacity to even think about or plan for lifting the lockdown. Without such a plan, the lockout will be intermittent and drawn out for months and years.
For example, PM Oli’s speech last week did not look ahead far enough. There was no concrete plan for the future and it did not address real issues with testing, supplies, and support to the detection and treatment of Covid-19. Although he emphasised rapid detection kits and community detection, the quality and efficacy of such testing have been questioned.
Oli’s speech, instead, indicated a government coming under pressure and floundering in its effort to battle the possible spread of the coronavirus as well as in addressing the effects of the lockdown.
One of the positives is that the presence of local and provincial governments has greatly aided the government’s response to the pandemic, particularly in tracking individual movements, enforcing lockdown and providing relief. PM Oli, in his recent speech, recognised this role of the local and provincial governments.
He focused on the need to support mega projects and agriculture to keep the economy moving and emphasised the role of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centres at all three levels of the government.
The government’s preparation, so far, has not faced any real test other than a long-drawn-out lockdown and controversy over procurements and testing. Although the government has come under heavy criticism from the media, the public perception remains supportive of the government measures.
According to the recent survey conducted by Sharecast, almost 70 percent of people think that the lockdown should continue until the situation becomes normal; a majority of them have prepared for such an eventuality.
Continuity of public support, however, will depend on the government’s capacity to implement a plan and communicate during a crisis.
It will also depend on its ability to manage the pandemic. As is often repeated, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In the absence of testing and detecting capacity, we do not know the extent to which the coronavirus may be spreading in Nepal. It may be for this reason that the government is planning to continue the lockdown for the next few weeks.
But the government must start thinking about and planning for easing restrictions. At present, the government does not appear to be planning for the transition. If there is no planning, the opening up will depend on the absence of infection, not on our ability to manage and control the spread of infection. What is happening in other parts of the world may not be replicable in Nepal.
The fundamental principles of opening up remain the same everywhere. It requires a careful balance between preventive measures and a gradual opening of essential activities. It can only be possible if there is a system of widespread testing, tracking, isolating and treating.
For example, a recent strategy advocated by a group of experts indicates a step-by-step plan for developed economies like Germany.
The opening up must be a gradual step-by-step plan. According to the experts, priority must be given to reducing restrictions that are severely straining our economy, society and health. Secondly, the gradual reopening must start from regions where the risk is low (low infection rate and good healthcare capacity).
Discussions are starting over economic stimulus and government policies after the pandemic is under control. The economic rescue package, whether through the government’s policy and programs or the World Bank assistance, must first focus on restarting businesses related to essential services, protecting the vulnerable groups and workers, and ensuring jobs.
Restarting the economy should start from sectors that add the most value to society and the economy. It must also encourage work-from-home policy where it is possible.
Reliable testing and sampling is the only way to make sure that easing of lockdown would be safe.
In a system infected by crony capitalism and corruption, government policies are likely to be captured by elites who do not necessarily serve the national economy or employment.
Nepal’s prospect of opening up will also depend on its ability to manage international flights from Tribhuvan International Airport and the borders with India and China.
Most, importantly, the opening up will depend on the capacity of the government. PM Oli needs to make sure the federal government, including its bureaucracy, is efficient. Unfortunately, in recent days, the political leadership of the government is losing faith in its bureaucracy, which is both strange and worrying. It was primarily for this reason that the government wants to entrust more tasks to the military, including the management of medical services in the provinces.
Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Photo: Prime Minister’s Secretariat
This article was first published in The Kathmandu Post on April 13, 2020.