The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Nepal Takes Steps to Prepare for COVID-19

Anxieties about the COVID-19 epidemic in Asia are high in Nepal.

By Brabim Karki for
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Nepal Takes Steps to Prepare for COVID-19
Credit: MShades / Chris Gladis

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Following the confirmation of a coronavirus case in Nepal, four people suspected to have contracted the virus were admitted to the isolation ward of Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, Teku, last week. The results of their tests have all been negative, officials at the hospital said.

All four are over 20 years old. Among them, three are Nepalis who had recently returned from South Korea and the other is a Chinese national who is from Beijing. Till now, 23 people have been kept in isolation in suspect of the disease. Among them, 19 people have already returned home after testing negative for COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-nCoV-2 virus.

Earlier, a Nepali student studying in China was found infected with the new coronavirus on January 24, marking the entrance of the deadly virus in the country. The 31-year old Nepali student had returned from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. The man was discharged after his condition improved following treatment.

The persistent drumbeat of positive tests and reported deaths in other countries have created widespread concerns in Nepal. After the World Health Organization raised its global risk for the deadly coronavirus to “very high” from “high,” the government is scrambling to intensify measures to contain the outbreak of the virus in Nepal.

According to the Ministry of Health and Population of Nepal, it is working hard to ensure that all passengers who land in Nepal through international flights are carefully screened. Currently, the Ministry has deployed 13 health workers for screening international passengers at the airport. This number isn’t enough to screen all the passengers entering Nepal by air.

“These health workers are screening passengers who come from China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia,” said Dr. Nishant Thakur, who is chief of the airport health desk. “The health workers are working in three shifts.” To screen all the international passengers Nepal needs more human resources, he said.

“These health workers aren’t enough for stringent screening of all passengers. Some of the passengers may skip the screening process due to the limited number of health workers,” said one of the passengers in the airport.

He further added, “The government should increase the number of health workers and close all the borders to contain the possible outbreak of this deadly respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission.”

Amid rising concerns of the coronavirus in Nepal, the government declared a temporary suspension of visas on arrival from March 7.

Similarly, the government has also formed a team under the leadership of Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Minister Narayan Bidari to keep an eye on the conditions and spur containment measures to rein in the possible outbreak of the virus, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali.

A High-Level Committee has also formed under Prime Minister K.P. Oli to carve out precautionary measures against the possible outbreak of COVID-19. The committee comprises ministers from major ministries including Home, Defense, Finance, Health, Tourism, Foreign, Industry, Education, and Agriculture.

Fearing the possible spread of the virus, on-arrival visas for those coming from China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, and Oman have been suspended temporarily. The government has also arranged 100 isolation beds in several hospitals in Kathmandu and instructed provincial hospitals to make arrangements for isolation wards.

The government has also revoked all of its promotional Visit Nepal 2020 campaigns, “Sagarmatha Sambad 2020,” and other international events. “The government is monitoring the situation closely and its possible impact to take required steps in advance,” said Gyawali.

Likewise, the government has canceled issuing No Objection Certificates (NOC) to students wanting to go for higher studies in those countries that have reported cases of the coronavirus.

There is a psychological fear among tourists in Nepal and that is seen in the low occupancy of hotels in major tourist hubs like Thamel, Pokhara, and Chitwan. “I have decided to leave Nepal this week because of the coronavirus,” said Lesik Povkh, an expat from Ukraine who has been residing in Nepal for three years. “I will have opportunities to get better help there and it’s more pleasant to be at home than in a foreign country.” Moreover, her insurance won’t cover her coronavirus treatment in Nepal, she said.

“Do not panic. The majority of those who get in contact with this deadly virus does not necessarily get serious, only a few need complete care,” said Sameer Mani Dixit, a research scientist with a background of working in public health. “Most of those who have died so far were elderly or had other diseases that weakened their immune system.” The spread of the virus is inevitable in the country, he said, adding that it’s time to stay alert.

“It’s worth washing our hands regularly. If possible we can use alcohol-based sanitizers also. Avoid doing handshakes if possible. Instead, you can greet by Namaskar,” a traditional South Asian greeting that involves a person pressing both their palms together.

Brabim Karki is an author and businessman living in Nepal. He owns the Mero Tribune and has written two books. He writes opinion editorials in different newspapers in Nepal.