Nepal | August 08, 2020

Nepal Post COVID-19: Fears and Hopes

Dr Hemant Dabadi
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The COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has taken over the life of every individual. One may still be lucky enough to be free from the novel coronavirus, but nobody, absolutely nobody, is free from the effects of the tiny element which the scientists define as something in between a living organism and an inorganic chemical. The virus is creating havoc in a majority of nations –  barring may be North Korea – implementing some form of lockdown or physical distancing regulations. The global economy is in doldrums. The IMF is predicting a decline in the size of the world economy by a whopping 9 trillion dollars, which is equal to the size of the economies of Japan and Germany combined.

There is so much uncertainty that nobody, except religious zealots who see the virus as something sent by their ‘lord’ to punish those who do not subscribe to their worldview, is able to predict with a certain amount of confidence the plight of the economy in particular and humanity in general ahead. Humans may have created nuclear bombs capable of destroying the world many times over, stealth bombers that can dodge the most advanced radars, drones capable of killing an enemy in Afghanistan while being navigated from the desert of Nevada, but the all-powerful nations with their armory and surveillance systems seem to be feeble in combat against the tiny enemy aptly named by the scientists as SARS-CoV-2.

The spread of the virus and the consequent lockdowns caused by it is affecting nations big and small, rich and poor, powerful and not-so-powerful. It has turned our lives upside down, not only because of the fear of catching the disease caused by the tiny enemy, but more by not being able to lead the life we have been accustomed to. The state, the medics, and the ‘experts’ are telling us to stay in isolation and not to venture out and not be in close physical proximity with anybody else, especially from those who have travelled abroad recently or who seem to have been in contact with them. Meetings and socialization have become virtual not real, the job of those who are fortunate to be ‘knowledge worker’ is mostly being carried out from their home.

Every one of us seem to have been badly affected by the virus. The super-rich have not only lost their billions, due to the stock exchange meltdown, but have also found out(hopefully) that no amount of wealth and barrier from ordinary folks can insulate them from the tiny particle. Businessmen and industrialists have seen their profits plunge and big losses creep in. The poorest of the poor – the daily wage-earners have seen their work and earnings evaporate with the prospect of hunger and starvation staring at them on day to day basis. Even those like us, who have some money and can still afford good food and do our work from home, have realized the limit of modern-day technology. After all, you cannot download a loaf of bread however fast your internet may be. No 3-D printer can print your medicine without prerequisite raw materials at your disposal. In a way, the virus is levelling the world economy’s playing field, proving that it is indeed flat.

However, COVID-19 is not the end of the world. Human ingenuity will overcome this pandemic, either through the development of a vaccine/medicine or at the worst, through the evolution of human immune system, whereby this virus won’t be so deadly for our future generations. But one thing is certain – the life cannot fall back to the usual rhythm of times previous to COVID-19. The virus is going to be a defining moment in the history of human kind in the 21st century. People are predicting that for many years to come, people will be talking about the eras of pre COVID-19 and post COVID-19.

Below I list some hopes and fears for the post COVID-19 period.

FEARS

The End of Globalization and Openness: Every crisis seems to force a person, a nation to look at oneself. The countries turn protectionist. The globalization may have its drawbacks and its detractors, but there is no denying that it led to progress in many fronts. Most of all, billions of people were able to get out of abject poverty due to globalization. It is globalization which has allowed our workforce to work outside of Nepal and send money back home, which amounts to about one-third of our economy. The remittances sent in by Nepalis working abroad has helped to lift a considerable number of families out of poverty and is also the primary source of foreign exchange which is keeping our economy afloat.

Protectionism and Jingoism: At a time of suffering, especially when the entire world is suffering, the easy way taken by countries and societies is to blame an enemy – real or perceived. Outsiders are natural contenders to get such a tag. People with narrow eyes have been in receiving End in India whereas the dark skinned humans are being looked down in China. Already, we can see the blame game playing out amongst and in countries. The same phenomenon is seen in trade front. As of now, some countries seem to have banned exports of some products, especially medicines and medical protective equipment such as masks. The virus fear has resulted in the control of imports and immigration to protect local industry and people. There is no doubt that certain amount of preference to local products and people is incoming, but will that turn into a trade war among nations. Sustained protectionism and xenophobia will leave everybody poorer and societies more broken.

Large scale return of migrant labour: This is especially an acute fear for us Nepalese. There cannot be any doubt that the Nepali migrant laborers currently employed in foreign countries will return in large numbers. The only question is what will be the scale or quantum of such return. It will depend not on us or our policies, but the change in size and structure of the economy of the host nations. A large number of Nepali migrant workers seem to be engaged in the hospitality or construction industries. These sectors, along with travel, are expected to suffer the most. This will lead to more unemployment lesser foreign exchange earnings and greater amount of discontent with the prevailing system. It is natural that the ‘classes’ may be blamed for the misery of the masses.

People refraining from travel and parties: We had pinned a lot of hope on tourism and substantial investment was being made in the hospitality and event management sector by private operators. The tourism and travel sector has been the worst hit, so far. There is no doubt that there will be substantial decline in international travel. The question now is of magnitude. Will social distancing customs be a norm even after the virus? If so, the cost on international travel and tourism is going to mount. People are also likely to refrain from organizing attending large conferences  seminars gatherings and parties. This will lead to decline in circulation of money which in turn negatively affect the economy as a whole. The events and parties. This will lead to a decline in tourism and many enterprises may turn sick. The large investment made in the sector may go down the drain.

Increase in State Control of Business: During a time of crisis, like war, a centralized control over resources seems to be more effective than allowing the free forces of market to decide who gets what. After all, command and control is the key element of a successful war operation. One cannot imagine controlling the virus  only using the known market mechanism. During such a time, people support the creation of a strong state which commandeers both private and public hospitals, forces the doctors and nurses – whether from public or private sector – to work as per its priorities, tells pharmaceutical companies and suppliers of medical equipment what to supply and in which quantity. This may lead to a situation where the state may think and conclude that it is a better manager of the things to be and the public may support that in the short run. But, fact of the matter is this sort of system leads to more inefficiency and corruption. The state is good in distribution of wealth not in creation. What we require is creation along with distribution.

Life as Usual: The biggest fear is we may forget the crisis being faced by humanity in a while, not take any lessons and continue to operate as usual. The pandemic has shown that human beings have not conquered nature. Even the tiniest of elements are more lethal than the sophisticated arsenal of a superpower with the most sophisticated lethal arms. The crisis provides us the opportunity to mend our ways and be prepared for the next rounds of crisis.

HOPES

More Investment in Public Health and Hygiene: Public investment in health and hygiene has been pathetically low. The state of cleanliness and quality of services in our public hospitals and health institutions, together with the morale of the service providers has been pathetic to say the least. Most of us thought that the access to private health service providers, both home and abroad, would insulate us from the bad quality of the public health services within the country. The COVID 19 pandemic has proved that no amount of wealth and power can insulate us from the tiny virus. The reason we had to resort to the crushing lockdown was and is that our health institutions simply do not have the necessary prerequisites such as testing facilities, beds, isolation rooms, ICUs, ventilators, and oxygen supply systems to handle an influx of patients in large numbers. Countries like South Korea, Japan and Germany with better public health systems have been able to cope with the onslaught of the virus and entirely crippling lockdowns, although they have resorted to some form of physical distancing and promoted stay at home policies. Even in our vicinity the state of Kerala in India, with its better public health system has been able to better handle the virus than its richer counterparts like Gujarat and Maharashtra. This author is not fond of all-pervasive state, including in health, but in cases like the one we are encountering, his conviction is that private health service providers cannot be an alternate to a public health system. Let us hope we will invest more of our resources in public health and hygiene, so that we will be better prepared to face a likely crisis in the future.

Better Social Habits in People: Nowadays people are wearing masks, washing their hands more frequently and taking necessary steps to maintain hygiene. Even the diehard communists have embraced the ‘Namaskar’ instead of shaking hands. Openly coughing and sneezing raises more eyebrows. People are actively seen trying to avoid body contact in grocery stores. Such habits are good not only to fight COVID 19, but any other communicable disease. Hope this will turn out to be a behavioral change that will continue. The biggest change this author would like to see is the end of open spitting and nose blowing, the filthiest habits of us most South Asians. In many Indian states, the police are enforcing heavy penalty for spitting on the road and public places, it is time our police also starts enforcing the same. Spit and mucus, along with excreta, are the biggest source of transmission of diseases. The sooner we do away this habit, the more better off we will be.

Respect for Manual Work: The hospital cleaners, the street sweepers, garbage pickers, along with the doctors, nurses and security personnel are the true warriors in the fight against the virus. The crisis has shown that we can still survive with most of the people in white collar jobs not attending the office, but we simply cannot survive without people in manual jobs in essential services. I hope the people have realized every job is important. Hopefully, from now on, labor including the so-called menial jobs should become respectable.

Reduction in Opulent Consumption: One of the negative effects of globalization has been the increasing gap in the income of the rich and the poor. The winner takes all has been somewhat the guiding principle of the last few years. The super-rich corner unimaginable proportion of income and wealth created in the society. Furthermore, there has been a trend to show off one’s wealth. This author has seen people celebrating their anniversaries inviting 1,000 plus guests or spending tons of rupees in the birthday parties of their kids. This sort of extravagance is not only undesirable, but it also creates a large social animosity towards the rich and fuels corrupt practices. Hopefully, the parties and gatherings will be leaner and the rich will realize the importance of sharing their wealth.

Improvement in the Quality of Jobs as well as Quality of Air and Water: Through the lockdown, we have realized that physically attending the office is not as important as we thought it to be. Much of the clerical jobs can be done from home. Meetings can take place using technologies like ZOOM. Air travel is not required to do negotiation. Hopefully, the employers will give their employees better laptops and high-speed internet connections. There will be an increase in spending on net security creating a number of new higher paid jobs. This will lead to decline in the use of fossil fuel and reduction in greenhouse gases, which will be beneficial to the environment that has been exploited to near breaking point. Already, we have witnessed a sharp decline in the price of crude oil. This may be good even for international peace as the Sheikhdoms of the Middle East with reduced oil income will think twice before venturing into proxy wars.

New Innovations and a More Diverse Economy: The virus has created a new environment for innovation. Already home delivery of essential items and direct marketing by farmers group has become popular. Hopefully, the crisis will lead to emergence of young leaders be it in politics, be it in business, or be it in science and technology, that will look for innovative solutions for the problems arising in this post-COVID world.

Two nations representing the two largest economies have been on the loggerheads regarding the crisis, its origin and way of tackling the same. The US president has even suspended funding to the WHO, blaming it for pro-China bias. The Chinese too are subtly blaming the US for the crisis. There is also an ongoing debate on whether the authoritarian model of China or the democratic model of the US is better suited to withstand such a crisis. To be honest, both countries have lost not gained credibility. The fact that the US is saddled with the highest number of infections and fatalities does not augment the prestige of the superpower. Similarly, the very fact that the Chinese party apparatus in the name of protecting national prestige forced a doctor who dared to go public about the potential crisis to stay silent, has not done any good to the ‘responsible’ behavior of the Peoples’ Republic carefully cultivated by the communist state over so many years.

The crisis enforces the need for greater and better sharing of information, knowledge and resources among nations to handle the crisis. The choice is between going one’s way, suffering more and becoming poorer, or cooperating and improving the life of every citizen on earth.

Dr Dabadi is a senior fellow at Samriddhi Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the organisation. Samriddhi is an independent research and educational public policy institute based in Kathmandu.


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