EDITORIAL: Inadequate testing

The only way to keep the country safe is to screen and test every suspected case as advised by the World Health Organisation

With the partial lockdown to go into effect from today in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus, there is a last-minute scram by the people to leave the capital to reach their homes in the villages. All non-essential services are coming to a halt from today, Monday. They include, among others, long-distance travel by road and all international flights to and from Nepal’s only international airport, Tribhuvan International Airport, in Kathmandu. With shops and restaurants shuttered for lack of business and workers, the capital’s streets are already wearing an eerie look. As in other parts of the globe, the coronavirus is creating a panic in the country, with neighbouring India now reporting six deaths, and the total number of cases jumping to more than 300. The partial lockdown will, however, help in containing the virus only if there is total coordination among all the government agencies to screen all possible sources of the virus. Unfortunately, potential carriers of the virus seem to have ignored the government instructions and have arrived in Nepal by air and land.

Clearly, some airline companies have been violating immigration rules by flying in passengers, both Nepalis and foreigners, who had travelled from restricted countries. On Saturday, the arrival of 64 Nepalis from restricted countries, such as Malaysia, Japan and some Gulf countries, on two flights put the government in a dilemma, and it had no option but to send them to the quarantine centre in Bhaktapur, for 14 days. At least 55 foreigners arriving here from restricted countries in recent times have been turned back from the airport. And neither Nepalis nor foreigners seem to be serious about self-quarantining themselves for two weeks on arrival here. While the TIA was seen as a potential entry point, the mass influx of Nepalis from India in the wake of the coronavirus scare, has made it impossible for the health workers to cope with the crowd at the border points that are still open. In such a scenario, should any carrier escape the attention of the health workers there, this could nullify all the efforts being made by the government and the people at large to keep the virus at bay.

The only way to keep the country safe is to screen and test every suspected case as advised by the World Health Organisation. Woefully, the National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL) is the only lab carrying out the tests at the moment. This is going to be far from adequate in the days ahead. Three hospitals – Bir Hospital, BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences and Dhulikhel Hospital – are ready to start the COVID-19 tests, but it all hinges on whether the NPHL will provide the needed reagents to conduct them. The coronavirus has affected both the economic and social life of the people. For the daily wage earner, it has been a hard choice between life and livelihood. It is just as hard for the people to restrict themselves to their homes, wear a mask and keep washing their hands every once in awhile. But as doctors have said, every citizen must ask him or herself what would they possibly do if they had contracted the virus?

Deferring minor crimes

Amidst the growing concern of the coronavirus, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has asked the Nepal Police to release persons held in the detention centres on charges of minor crimes on bail or guarantee or on recognisance to appear on appointed days. The OAG took a decision to this effect as per the National Criminal Procedure (Code) Act-2017 that allows the investigating body to release a person from custody if the offence is punishable by a fine of up to Rs 2,000 or imprisonment not exceeding two months. It may also divert the case.

The aim of the OAG order is to reduce unnecessary pressure of crime suspects in the detention centres in the wake of COVID-19. However, any person convicted of crimes like corruption, torture, rape, murder, genocide, detonating explosives, kidnapping, hostage-taking or enforced disappearances, human trafficking, money laundering and drug smuggling will not be entitled to this facility. The jail sentence of an elderly person above 65 years of age may be rebated in view of his/her age, health condition and nature of crime committed. This is a welcome move, which will greatly help reduce the crowd of minor offenders in the detention centres and prison houses.