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CWA # 287, 13 May 2020

South Asia's COVID-19 Strategies
For Nepal, it is effective local governments, educative media, and India-Nepal health diplomacy

  Mahesh Bhatta

Despite a resource crunch, the role played by the provincial and local governments against the pandemic has been acknowledged. In coordination with the federal, the province has made a significant contribution to overall quarantine arrangements, ICU management, mobilizing health care staff, and testing samples


Nepal's virus response has been satisfactory as 12 positive cases have recovered so far with zero death. The intensity of potential transmission has been regulated.
 
Given the acute situation and the implications of negligence, the government has introduced counter mechanisms. Nepal is yet to establish comprehensive deliverable strategies to counter potential cases and its social, psychological, and economic domino effects. 

Before the crisis would cripple Nepal, as an early bird, nationwide lockdown decision was taken immediately after the second positive case. However, Nepal was late in taking crucial decisions like shutting down international flights, sealing the borders with India, and preparing an adequate number of necessary health kits.
 
Four-Steps response towards the pandemic 
Nationwide lockdown, suspension of international flights, sealing off borders, and COVID-19 relief measures are the major initiatives by Nepal. Amid rising cases, the government declared the lockdown on 24 March. All government services other than essential ones are closed, flights suspended, busy markets are shut down, and people's movement restricted. Also, the government revoked its mega-events and promotional campaigns on 'Visit Nepal 2020.' 
 
On 11 March, the government decided to stop on-arrival tourist visas temporarily. On 20 March, it decided to restrict all incoming passengers from the European Union countries, including the UK, the Gulf, and the West Asian countries. As the final step, 22 March onwards the government decided to lock down the sole international airport and sealed its international borders. The move came in the wake of the WHO's suggestion to seal its borders with India following the rising cases within. 
 
On 29 March, the government unveiled the relief package aimed at poor and daily wage workers. The government declared a 10 per cent discount on food items, including rice, pulses, and lentils. Besides, the relief package, a 25 per cent discount on electricity and internet service were also made part of the welfare schemes. The Nepal Rastra Bank declared a relief package for businesses and industries impacted from the lockdown. The government announced the free insurance of NPR 2.5 million for the front-liners and health professionals.
 
Local Governance, Strong Police, Supportive Civil Society and Educative Social Media as Enablers
Multiple enablers are expanding their generous support to combat the virus. The employees of government hospitals and health workers have played an important role by providing health services despite the shortage of Personal-Protective-Equipment (PPE) and other resources.
 
Similarly, the Nepal police have played a more significant role in maintaining peace and harmony during the lockdown. They have also been successful in finding those suspected of being infected with the virus, who risked the communities by hiding and not quarantining themselves. Correspondingly, the Nepal Army and the Armed Police Force have constantly been monitoring the border check-points and have also established the temporary hospitals and check-up posts.
 
Despite a resource crunch, the role played by the provincial and local governments against the pandemic has been acknowledged. In coordination with the federal, the province has made a significant contribution to overall quarantine arrangements, ICU management, mobilizing health care staff, and testing samples. On the other hand, the local government is playing a significant role in enforcing lockdown, contact tracing, assisting the vulnerable, and coordinating with the province government.
 
Civil Society Organizations are deeply concerned about the pandemic and have been collaborating with the government and development partners. CSOs have been playing various roles in their capacities from providing foods to the needy to eliminating information gaps. Moreover, they have been educating people and debunking rumours by developing factsheets, Sitreps, and other evidence-based information to ensure a better situational understanding.
 
Social media in Nepal has become one of the best ways to share news. It contributed to educating the people about the virus symptoms and safety tips, which is perhaps helping in saving their lives.
 
Strong Health Diplomacy between India and Nepal
As part of the on-going bilateral cooperation to fight the crisis, the Prime Ministers of Nepal and India as well as the officials have been in close consultation. On 22 April, India gifted 23 tonnes of essential medicines to Nepal. Similarly, both the leaders also agreed on facilitating cross-border supplies of essential commodities.
 
Nepal sets lessons  early Sealing of Borders
A country with a population of 30 million, only 49 positive cases have been found so far. But no other country in the world with such a large population has so little cases. Nepal is the first SAARC country to detect infection and perhaps one among the very few countries in the world that do not yet have any death case. In the WHO's global risk categorization, Nepal's risk has now dropped one level from "very high" to a "high."
 
Locking down the country and sealing the border was a timely decision to reduce the spread. Not all the countries in the region, however, are strictly implementing nationwide lockdown, perhaps to guard the county from a possible economic crisis. The entire country, including the provincial and local governments, was largely directed by one national health policy against COVID-19. 
 
Mahesh Bhatta is a research officer at the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS), a Kathmandu based think-tank. 

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