At this crucial juncture, the government should enforce pandemic control measures with a major focus on the open border if it is indeed serious about saving lives and the economy.
Let me start with the cliché: The worst is yet to come.
Allow me to present a brief overview of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nepal, taken from the Ministry of Health and Population website, as of August 09, 2020, to set the context for this piece:
Now, let’s compare these numbers with that of the neighboring India (taken from mygov.in/covid-19 on August 09), with which we share a border that’s very very open on our side, a border through which people can sneak into Nepal with relative ease, even in this pandemic situation.
These reports from India should ring alarm bells for Nepal. Worryingly, they have not, it appears.
Reports in the Nepali media suggest that districts bordering India are witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Part of a report published in this daily on August 9 reads: With 17 new cases on Sunday, the number of COVID-19 cases has reached 857. In recent days, Kapilvastu has witnessed a daily surge of cases at the community level. Following the daily spike in new cases of COVID-19, Kapilvastu Municipality has decided to restrict hotels and restaurants to operate from Monday in a bid to curb the further spread of the virus.
And here goes a pedestrian’s translation of a Nagarik daily report published on August 09: Indians are entering the Far-West of Nepal daily through the Trinagar customs of Kailali district and vicinity as well as Dodhara Chandani of Kanchanpur.
It alleges that Indian nationals, who had left Nepal for their homes about 4.5 months ago after the imposition of a lockdown, are returning after lifting of the lockdown, by bribing police personnel deployed along the border. The returnees, including barbers, traders and factory workers, are mingling with local communities, without having to stay in quarantines for a certain period of time, thereby exposing local populations to increased risk of transmission.
The report quotes a grill factory worker from India as saying: I entered Nepal by paying Rs 5,000 to police deployed along the border. Anyone can enter Nepal by bribing police.
One can only hope that the law enforcement agency takes this charge seriously, conducts a probe, shares the findings with the public and initiates action against the guilty, if any.
Reports of almost unhindered entry/re-entry of aliens into Nepal (for jobs) come at a time when the national economy is bleeding dry with a Nepal Rastra Bank survey report pointing that businesses and industries have cut one-fourth of jobs during the lockdown imposed to control the spread of coronavirus.
The survey covering 674 businesses and industries from 52 districts carried out between June 8 and June 24 found 22.5 percent of their employees were laid off during the lockdown, myrepublica.com states drawing from the findings of the report. According to the report, two-thirds of those who have lost their jobs were either temporary or contract-based workers.
The report on the unhindered entry of the aliens adds that Nepalis returning from different parts of India are heading home without having to stay in quarantines for a certain period. It quotes a senior physician based in the region, Shubhesh Raj Kayastha, as saying: Because of extreme negligence, the Far-West is facing the threat of a serious crisis.
It will not be far-fetched to say that all districts bordering India face increased risk of transmission. Imagine the crisis we would be in if our borders with the northern neighbor were as open as the border with the southern neighbor, especially in crisis situations like this!
Wrapping up, it will be timely to note that the COVID-19 Crisis Management Center (CCMC) has decided to recommend the government against resuming aviation services and long-distance public transport from August 17 as per an earlier decision. It has decided to recommend that the government postpone the resumption of long-distance public transport and aviation services for 15 days as the cases of COVID-19 have lately seen a sharp increase in various parts of the country.
CCMC has also decided to ask the government to further tighten cross-border movement of people in view of the possible spread of COVID-19. The designated entry points for people entering Nepal from India will also be reduced to 10 from the existing 20.
The last part of CCMC recommendations will not go well with those visionaries, who want Nepal to benefit from the ‘prosperity’ of two giant neighbors cum emerging super power and hyperpower! So be it.
For now, the government should focus only on saving lives by ensuring livelihoods of Nepali peoples. With air services on halt, hardly any alien will be able to enter Nepal from outside the immediate neighborhood, leaving the immediate neighborhood with open/informal border as a risk factor.
The government should address this risk by enforcing tighter border controls and keeping only a manageable number of border points open and shutting the rest.
Most probably, that move will address security concerns of our neighbors and spare us constant security headaches.
As for national prosperity with or without neighborly largesse, let the chatterati continue their punditry, even when decent living has been a dream for many with no river of prosperity flowing into Nepal through the open border.
At this crucial juncture, instead of paying much heed to the chatterati, the government should enforce pandemic control measures with a major focus on the open border if it is indeed serious about saving lives and the economy.
If it fails to do so, the worst may indeed happen.