Familiar with disasters, Nepalese take COVID-19 in stride

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PITTSFIELD — The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating in the United States, but not nearly as harsh in Nepal.

As of June 8, only 3,762 cases of coronavirus had been reported in Nepal, according to worldometers,info, and 488 of those afflicted had recovered. There have been 14 deaths, all since May 15.

Ghanashyam Ojha, who served as a Daniel Pearl Fellow at The Berkshire Eagle in 2006, lives in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, where he works for the Office of the Investment Board and has previously served as a photojournalist and at the nonprofit Carter Center. Last year he wrote a book titled, "Factors Influencing the Public Representation in Nepal" that was published in Germany.

I recently spoke to Ojha via email about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his country. His answers have been edited somewhat for space and clarity.

Q: Has Nepal reached its peak number of coronavirus cases. If not when is the curve expected to go down?

A: First of all, Nepal, being one of the (world's) poorest nations, has not been able to test huge numbers of the population for coronavirus. Therefore, it's too early to say whether the number of corona positive cases will spike in Nepal. ... Most of the people with confirmed cases have traveled from India or other European countries.

On the other hand, a nationwide lockdown seems to be effective to control the spread of coronavirus in Nepal. Nepalese culture, on the other hand, seems to be positively contributing to the control of the virus. For instance, Nepalese usually don't shake hands or hug. They usually don't share leftovers and always eat fresh.

Q: Judging from a map of the country, the cases of coronavirus that have been reported in Nepal appear to be spread throughout the country not concentrated in clusters of high population areas like they have been here. Do you know why?

A: Most cases identified until now are far from the capital city, Kathmandu. The areas are close to the Indian border. ... The people infected with the virus have come from India. Four persons who came from France and London have also been identified corona positive. It indicates that the pandemic had not spread to local people.

But the fear of potential spread has gripped people and they have remained cautious. Some of the (places) where cases have been found are in populated areas, and those areas, away from Kathmandu, don't have any resources or infrastructure to fight the pandemic. The only way out for people is to stay at home.

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Q: What does lockdown look like in Nepal?

A: Police personnel are strictly regulating the lockdown on roads. Only those who have obtained passes from government authorities are allowed to travel. Otherwise, they can't make movements, except for purchasing food and other items very much close to their houses. Some private companies have begun providing food online, and people order food items at home. All factories, industries and businesses have been closed. Government offices are open, but only senior staff are allowed to go to the office on alternative days. Some construction companies have resumed their work with their workers locked down within their company offices. The workers stay within the company premises.

Q: When are services expected to be restored? Is Nepal expected to reopen gradually or all at once?

A: Some factories and companies have begun to open with workers locked inside the premises. Schools have begun online courses. For instance, my son in Grade 7 has started his online full-day classes. Many schools have followed this, and children are being managed well at home. Groceries are open for a certain period. The government is likely to review the full lockdown system after [the deadline expires]. They are planning to partially open businesses, including factories, industries and others. Since Nepal's huge population [is] dependent on agriculture and [is] engaged in agricultural activities, the government has allowed them to continue with cultivation.

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Q: What kind of effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on Nepal's economy?

A: The virus is going to have a serious impact on Nepal's economy. First of all, much of our economy is dependent on remittance, and it is going to shrink in the days to come. Many Nepalese working in Gulf countries are losing their job, and are requesting the government to return home. On the other hand, Nepal heavily imports all goods, including consumables from India and China. Since factories and industries are closed in Nepal, it can't export any items anytime soon. Similarly, many factory workers have left for their home in villages, and they may not return to work anytime soon. They have lost confidence, and they may not want to come back to cities for work due to fear from corona.

Q: What steps has the government taken to bolster the economy?

A: Nepal's government has (advised) factories against laying off staff. It has said that it will compensate the factories and industries later, but they must continue paying their staff and can't release them from work. The workers walked long distances home as they couldn't afford (to live) in cities and there were no vehicles (for them) to reach home. Some people have walked for more than a week to reach home. The government has been blamed for such a poor response. Local community groups, local clubs, have come forward and started providing food and accommodation to those who are walking in the streets.

Q: We're practicing social distancing in America. In Massachusetts, everyone except nonessential workers has been ordered to stay home. Are you practicing social distancing in Nepal and what does it look like?

A: Physical distancing is extremely helpful and is strictly being maintained. People have stopped visiting their relatives. Social gatherings, like marriages and many other rituals, have been canceled. Nepal is rich in cultures and rituals. Therefore, Nepalese people in general are engaged in many festivals and festivities and they celebrate such festivals in large gatherings. But all such festivals have been canceled, and people are celebrating such festivals in their own houses with family members. At groceries, people must maintain physical distance with each other. Police monitor such activities.

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Q: How is social distancing affecting your family? Are you still working?

A: I have stopped my morning and evening walks. I go out only to purchase groceries once a week. I am working from home. It's challenging to continue working from home. But there is no option to it. The physical distancing has brought me close to my family members. Since I don't go out, I spend most of my time with my wife and children. It's a good time to share emotion, ideas, happiness with family members.

Q: How does Nepal view America's response to fighting the coronavirus. Do people approve or disapprove of our government's response?

A: To be very honest, most Nepalese people disapprove of the measures being taken by the U.S. president to fight coronavirus. People here think that he prioritized the economy and his political ambition more than people's health and life. His delay in responding to the virus, including the way he was terming it a "China virus," downplaying its potential impact to the U.S., his decision to stop support to [the World Health Organization]; and his prescription to Americans to fight the virus were all outrageous and ridiculous. People here think that he is very erratic and that his behavior is going to be costly for innocent Americans.

Q: There has been considerable debate in America about when and how to reopen the country as the coronavirus continues to spread. And, the debate here has become polarized along political lines. Is the same sort of debate occurring in Nepal and has it also become political?

A: Yes, (there is) public discourse on whether to reopen the country even as the virus continues to spread. Interestingly, all the political parties are together on the fight against coronavirus. They seem interested to partially open [the country] and to allow the economy to function. It largely depends on the number of new cases. Until now, no death has happened. ... The recovery cases are providing confidence to Nepalese authorities and the people as well. They seem to be thinking that Nepalese people's immune system may be able to fight the virus. But it remains to be seen how that unfolds in the future.

Q: What is Nepal expected to look like after the pandemic ends?

A: Nepalese people, by and large, are happy people. They still crack jokes and enjoy talking about coronavirus. They have come across difficult times. There was an earthquake in 2015 that killed around 10,000 people. Similarly, people have suffered heavy floods during monsoon. Therefore, people usually don't panic under such difficult situations ... the eastern philosophy believes in spiritualism and mental peace. People practice yoga and meditation during difficult times.

But people will find changes in the economy and social life after the current conditions have passed. I think people will not mingle for social gatherings, or festivals for at least a couple of months. Similarly, many people who used to come to cities for work, will start small businesses, particularly focused on agriculture in their own villages. It will help develop the rural economy, which will ultimately contribute to the national economy in the future.


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