EDITORIAL: Antigen tests

Together with the antigen tests, the government is advised to step up its contact tracing, which was discontinued in the past

In a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus in the community, the government is to carry out antigen tests of about 300,000 people for free. The government is opting for the antigen tests as it is less expensive and faster than the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR), although the antigen tests are said to be less accurate. There has been a sharp drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, but it is not known if this has happened because the number of new infections is indeed declining or because fewer tests than are necessary are carried out. On Sunday, 421 new cases of coronavirus infection were diagnosed across the country out of the 5,800 tests conducted, three times less than the number of tests carried out in the past. The government sees the mass rapid antigen tests, which give results in about 20 minutes, as a must to identify anyone infected with the coronavirus and ensure their treatment if the disease is to be managed. Since the bulk of the new infections originate in the Kathmandu Valley, the government will be conducting the antigen tests on more than 60,000 people here. But how successful the government will be in tracking down all those infected, only time will tell.

In November, the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division (EDCD) had started mass antigen testing in Kathmandu Metropolitan City with support from the World Health Organisation. However, the campaign turned out to be an utter failure and had to be scrapped as few turned up for the testing despite it being free of cost. Even infected people did not come for the tests, thinking it would cost money, and when they did come, it was usually late and they were critically ill, which put their community at risk.

The government’s decision to charge for the coronavirus tests in early November and later scrap it only created confusion in the people. Also the long queues seen in the government hospitals discouraged people from coming forward for a test, whether an antigen or PCR.

Mass testing is the only way to control the spread of the virus, especially now that the new, deadlier strain of the coronavirus has been detected in Nepal also. Nepal has conducted far less tests than those carried out by countries with a similar population or even less, such as Malaysia or Australia. Nepal has carried out a little over 1.9 million tests compared to almost 10 million tests in Australia with a population of 25 million. There is, thus, little to cheer about if the declining infection numbers are masking the real status of the disease in the country. The government is particularly worried that the number of deaths due to the virus has been increasing in recent weeks because it has not been able to identify those infected on time. Limited testing means many cases will be missed. The success of the campaign will largely rest on how effectively the EDCD coordinates with the local levels to convince the people to come forward to undergo the test. It must not be seen as just another drive for the sake of it. But the antigen tests apart, the government is advised to step up its contact tracing, which was discontinued in the past, so that no one is missed.

Free clean energy

Patrasi Rural Municipality in Jumla district in farflung Karnali Province has become the first rural municipality to provide free clean energy to 3,400 households in 27 settlements. Following the completion of 15 micro-hydropower projects totaling 250 kilowatts of combined energy, the rural municipality has become self-reliant in producing clean energy at the local level. Chairman of the municipality Lachhiman Bohara said they initiated the drive to light up the villages just three years ago when they were elected to the local level.

With all these power plants coming into operation, the locals do not need to rely on kerosene lamps, and students can do their homework till late night in a clean environment. This is an example other local levels could emulate. It has also proved that the local levels can perform better than the federal and provincial governments if they are given more powers to harness local resources. Jumla district is not connected to the national grid. Micro-hydropower projects can fulfil the local needs. The only problem they might face is making them sustainable in the long run. The local level must keep aside a revolving fund to keep them operational in the future.