KATHMANDU, JUNE 28
Just as life was returning to normal after the effects of first wave of the coronavirus pandemic had started to ebb, the second wave hit the country as a rude awakening to the fact that we are not out of the woods yet.
Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank country director for Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, shared with The Himalayan Times his insights on the current economic scenario, lessons to be learnt, priority areas, among other issues.
What is your assessment of the situation facing Nepal? What are the prospects and challenges to Nepal's post-pandemic recovery?
The COVID-19 situation in the region and in Nepal remains worrisome. Though it is encouraging to see a gradual decline in the second wave, the risk to lives and livelihoods remains significant with infections and deaths still occurring every day, and the threat of evolving variants of the virus.
In the absence of sufficient vaccines for most of the population, public health and social measures continue to be the main armament to fight the deadly virus and limit its transmission. This applies not only to Nepal but to all of South Asia, and certainly all of the world. In Nepal, around three per cent of the Nepali population has received both doses of vaccines so far. Sadly, this is not too different from other countries, which shows the extent of vaccine demand throughout the world. As we, ADB (Asian Development Bank), and other development partners are working closely with the government on this, we know they are seeking to acquire more and soon. Yet the global demand is massive.
Alas, without vaccinations, the possibility of subsequent waves cannot be ignored.
In terms of the overall economic performance, data from the first 10 months of FY2020-21 show signs of moderate recovery. However, this does not include rising unemployment, for which high frequency data is not available. Moreover, the second wave of the pandemic and related lockdowns and the slow deployment of vaccines could put a drag on the recovery.
Are you satisfied with the government's overall COVID response?
This is a crisis of unprecedented scale and severity. No country expected this, and none of us had the expertise for something of this scale a couple of years ago. Yet, we are here now. And we have almost two years of bitter experience, including some valuable lessons and some successes. Two among these are the value of swift action, and a collective approach.
Nepal, like other countries, was caught a bit unaware by the second wave which stretched the country's infrastructure, systems, and capacity to respond to the unanticipated surge. One lesson from this is that more concrete planning and preparation, based on the lessons of other countries which had seen multiple surges of the disease, could help with the response. The Nepali authorities are internalising these lessons, and one can observe a marked improvement in this as more experience is gained. Sadly, we may have additional waves so we will need to constantly adapt, organise ourselves better, and seek help from all partners.
Fortunately, Nepal has a large group of dedicated development partners who are here to help.
In terms of the overall availability of medical supplies, testing equipment, oxygenators, etcetera, the government has stepped up its efforts at all levels. This is to be commended.
While Nepal was amongst the early responders in initiating its vaccination drive for prioritised populations, supply and availability issues beyond the government's control have unfortunately delayed the process. While the government is doing its part, we need all hands on deck to ensure Nepal receives vaccines on a timely basis.
What should be Nepal's immediate priorities, especially when it comes to vaccines?
The priority here is elegantly simple: One, waste no time but plan procurements for the long haul; two, seek out vaccines where you can, and seek help of all partners; three, yet, when deciding on the purchase, ensure quality and international certification.
This is indeed what the government is doing, by reaching out directly to vaccine producers for urgent supplies now, while in parallel relying immediately on the ever-important COVAX facility to ensure a steady flow of vaccines for the coming two years and beyond.
With global supply shortage now, it is extremely difficult to secure the needed jabs within the next few months. Yet, it is important to keep knocking on all doors. At the same time, let's plan for 2022 and beyond.
It's not too early for that. Sadly, it is unlikely that the virus will go away anytime soon.
It is important that we remain focused on supplies that are certified by WHO (World Health Organisation) through its Emergency Use Listing.
Many are on that list, and many more are likely to be added soon. This ensures rigour, quality and safety. The same thing applies with private third parties. Whereas they may offer another window of access, it is critical to ensure that they are authorised by the producers, that the prices are fair and that the quality is assured.
How is the World Bank helping Nepal in terms of accessing the vaccines and other support measures to deal with the pandemic?
The WB has made available $104 million to support Nepal's immediate health response to the pandemic. This funding is supporting the purchase and deployment of life-saving COVID‐19 vaccines ($75 million out of $104 million) for prioritised Nepali citizens, health system strengthening towards a robust public health response to the pandemic, community engagement and risk communication, and strengthening existing digital technology‐based pandemic data, surveillance and monitoring systems.
We are committed to support Nepal and Nepalis during this crisis and, by joining forces with the government and development partners, we have been able to have more impact.
How have the WB-supported programmes been affected due to the pandemic?
Generally, the pandemic has affected not only the World Bank-supported programmes but the entire development effort.
Prolonged lockdowns restricted movements and field works. WB supervision was also severely constrained, and all reviews were carried out virtually. Overall implementation of WB programmes has slowed down thus impacting in the overall disbursement of investment projects which was much below than planned. However, implementation continued, and I expect that most projects will achieve their development objectives despite the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers have flagged a possible third wave of coronavirus to hit India around October. Do you think Nepal will be better prepared if that happens?
The second wave of the pandemic has provided important lessons for Nepal that can help inform future health responses. Given there is no clear indication as to when vaccines will be available for many countries' prioritised populations, including Nepal, preventive public health efforts need to be at the heart of government's interventions.
Anticipating the possibility of potential future surges, it is encouraging to see government's focus on strengthening infrastructure, equipment, supplies, and human resource capacity to provide healthcare, particularly for children. Nepal has the budget, strengthened infrastructure, and resources in place to help fight the pandemic. As we are seeing initial signs of relaxation in prohibitory orders, it is important that we do not let down our guard and continue to use a forward-looking approach to counter any future waves of the pandemic.
A version of this article appears in the print on June 29 2021, of The Himalayan Times.