Nepal May Escape the Coronavirus but Not the Crash

The remote mountain country has only five confirmed coronavirus cases.

A general view shows an almost deserted street with closed shops and restaurants during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Lukla, northeast of Kathmandu, on March 28.
A general view shows an almost deserted street with closed shops and restaurants during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Lukla, northeast of Kathmandu, on March 28. Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images

KATHMANDU, Nepal—Officially, there have been only five coronavirus cases in Nepal. But despite the tiny numbers, the country entered full lockdown on March 24 for at least a week—a decision the government made after finding only the second case, a Nepali student arriving home from France via Qatar. Flights and long-distance buses have been suspended, and the country’s borders are sealed—even to its own citizens.

Originally, Nepal treated the outbreak as a distant threat. The local jokes around the supposed immunity of Nepalis to the virus even caught on with government officials, who declared the country a “coronavirus-free zone” to boost the Visit Nepal 2020 tourism campaign.

As the coronavirus has spread worldwide, however, the mood in Nepal has become increasingly serious. The border closure is aimed in part at Nepali workers abroad—who are now stuck in foreign countries with little aid from their governments.

So far, most citizens appear to be observing the lockdown—in part because the police have been strict enforcers, including delivering beatings. In a country where most people live on less than $1,000 a year, and which is highly dependent on tourism, the economic impact is likely to be brutal—but no measures have yet been announced. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday morning for heart issues and has not yet announced any financial measures since his discharge on Friday.

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Sher Bahadur Pun of Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital told Foreign Policy: “The government has prepared, but no country is really perfect to deal with this virus at this time. We need to actively trace and contain the virus so that we can prepare for the worst scenario.” Pun added that he was hopeful that conditions in Nepal might mean people had stronger immune systems and that frequent hand-washing was a cultural norm.

Initially, there were many false theories and pieces of fake news around the virus—such as the idea that Nepalis might somehow be immune to the virus or that China’s air pollution and poor hygiene were the main culprits, sparing a people who pride themselves on cleanliness.

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Like many nations, Nepal was also lethargic in testing. According to the Ministry of Health and Population, Nepal has tested just 802 people so far—with 799 negative results, one person in recovery, and three4 in isolation. The Health Emergency Operation Center reported on Thursday that 17 people were in isolation as a precaution and that 44 new cases were detected but they were found negative. The ministry has also designated 25 hospitals across the country to deal with the virus and rolled out more than $200,000 for the purchase of medical equipment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) examined Nepal’s only testing facility, the National Public Health Laboratory in Kathmandu, and made a statement that the center was capable of accurately testing the virus. WHO, however, recommended that the center repair and upgrade its facilities. According to Bikash Devkota, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Population, the laboratory has the ability to conduct 4,000 tests in a week, but a lack of swab kits and extensive guidelines for swab testing have limited the daily test to 50 only.

Testing is likely to ramp up, as the government on Saturday sent a flight to Guangzhou, China, to bring back medical equipment (including swab kits) that it purchased. On March 22, the Jack Ma Foundation announced that it would donate medical supplies to Nepal, and medical supplies provided by China are arriving via the Tatopani border in the north.

Despite the low numbers, Nepal’s poverty and lack of doctors could prove catastrophic—though its demographics may be an advantage. Hospitals lack personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, oxygen cylinders, and intensive care units, which has made medical staff wary of treating patients. The hospitals are frantically searching for new staff due to a lack of health workers.

Sameer Dixit of the Center for Molecular Dynamics told Foreign Policy: “If we face a situation like in Italy, Spain, and the United States, then we cannot handle it. But fortunately, we have a young population, and the most at-risk group makes up only 10 percent of people. So the government needs to focus on protecting the old and vulnerable groups. Only 4 percent of people are over 60.”

The social entrepreneur Mahabir Pun has started to produce PPE from his National Innovation Center, which focuses on the promotion of research and development in Nepal, but medical staff worry the gear may not be up to standards—and say there isn’t nearly enough.

Swornim Gyawali, a doctor at a private hospital in Kathmandu, said: “Our hospital has provided PPE to medical workers but not up to standard. Front-line workers are worried about getting infected, as happened in China and Italy. But there’s a lack of coordination and equipment from the government and the system, which scares us.”

The lack of medical preparation has created an exodus of Nepalis, many of whom have residence or citizenship elsewhere and who fled abroad in large numbers while it was still possible. Fear of total brain drain was another prompt for the flight ban announced on March 20, due to last until at least March 31.

Nepal’s huge southern neighbor, India, has posted only small coronavirus numbers so far, but experts fear spread there will grow fast. China, however, may become a source of aid in a country the two Asian powers have often fought for influence over.

Nepal is expected to extend the lockdown to two more weeks and probably announce an economic relief package. With luck, Nepal might escape the worst of the coronavirus itself—but it can’t shake off the damage done by a crashing world.

Arun Budhathoki is a Nepalese journalist and poet.