Among the hardest hit: Nepal prepares against Coronavirus

KATHMANDU: As the nations around the world prepare for coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, people involved in the informal economy face uncertainty over taking care of their daily amenities, more so in developing countries like Nepal. Social and financial protection to the wage workers in an informal economy has always been a major issue in Nepal where more than 70 percent (ILO report, 2019) of economically active population is involved. This issue has never been more critical than now when the country is in a state of total lockdown, to curb the spread of the global pandemic. Another alarming factor, then, is Nepal’s lack of preparedness towards scaling up of the healthcare system, given that the handling capacity could be overwhelmed as the need for intensive treatment may surge in near future.

Though the pandemic has affected the entire globe right now, developed countries with comparatively small percentage of their workforce in informal economy have to struggle less to cope with evolving unemployment issues. In the US, the senate has passed a $2.2tn emergency relief package that, among others, would provide up to $1,200 in direct relief for American adults as compensation for temporary unemployment. In UK, the government agreed to pay up to 80 per cent of wages of workers who are unable to work due to coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, the Government of Nepal (GoN) has ordered nationwide lockdown mimicking its immediate neighbors-India and China. While this is definitely a right move to minimize the spread of the virus, the lockdown has, however, badly affected the low-income or daily wage workers in informal economy as their livelihood options have come to a complete halt.

In fact, these people are in desperate need of financial support in-terms of relief packages to manage their basic necessities. While the Government of India has already come with a set of policy measures to combat the economic impact of the fast-spreading coronavirus, the GoN is yet to declare any sort of such relief packages for the needy and pro-poor.

One thing that may be stopping GoN from bringing relief packages for informal workers is data unavailability, and that is preventing them from making informed policies.

Learning from this tragic situation, when we reach the end of this pandemic, the GoN should find ways to document the active workforce involved in informal economy, keep measure of their inputs in country’s overall economic activities and most importantly, develop social protection mechanism for them, especially considering simiar rough situations that may arise in future.

This is also the time when health workers worldwide have urged countries to take measures that can keep reported cases at a manageable level for health-care systems, a concept known as ‘flattening the curve’.

Nepal as it is has a poor health-care service and lacks medical infrastructure, health personnel and equipment; is poorly prepared to handle a large scale outbreak. Hence, the need to scalie-up health facilities, in-terms of medical equipments and health workers seems another key challenge for Nepal during these difficult times.

Even in major cities like Kathmandu where healthcare facilities are relatively abundant, the dangers of wider infection owing to it's dense population is just a miles away, if no substantial efforts are made to upgrade health services. The situation in rural areas is far worse where people have far less access to health-care facilities.

Nevertheless, the GoN has taken various precautions to prevent the spread of disease. Quarantine wards and temporary hospitals are being setup across the country and laboratory facilities are being expanded at provincial centers.

Despite these worthy steps by the GoN in expanding medical coverage to curb possible outbreak of the infection, much still remains to be done. First, there is the utmost need to upscale capacity of our laboratories for conducing more and more tests. More test of the samples will help map the actual level of spread of the infection. Secondly, hospitals need to multiply their present capacity for isolation wards with required medical equipments as well as increasing the number of health workers. And, thirdly, ensure availability of enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our health workers as they are the first responders, and themselves face high risk of infection.

This pandemic is a nightmare for all, but rather than panicking we should act responsibly. The GoN should come up with holistic approach to address multidimensional challenges that may arise while dealing with this pandemic. The foremost important is we should care for those hardest hit, and reduce our blind spots to risks in this time of coronavirus.

Mr. Shrestha is the PhD Scholar in Theoretical Economic at Peking University.

Mr. Joshi is the Chairperson of SCOPE Nepal.