After eight weeks of compliance to a government mandated blanket lockdown, the country is onto yet another extension.
The lockdown logic began with flattening the curve and soon became the government’s go-to solution. But amidst all the political bickering and power struggle, the government seems to have forgotten that lockdown is NOT the cure to the virus. Let’s be clear, blanket lockdowns on their own do not extinguish the virus but are merely precautionary approaches that allow governments to stock take, buy time, and prepare health systems and infrastructures to better combat the spread. Yet seems as though, fifty-five critical days of the lockdown were instead wasted in the lookout of a miraculous recovery. Although we had a head start with the lockdown in place, what exactly did we achieve?
For a population of 30 million, the Health Ministry states that we have a total of 974 isolation beds, 345 ICU beds and 146 ventilators available throughout the country. To put things into perspective, Nepal has one isolation bed for every 30,800 people, one ICU bed for every 86,956 people and one ventilator for every 205,479 people. Needless to say, the condition is appalling. And we had eight weeks to prepare; eight weeks to set up supply chains to ensure sufficient health facilities, to ramp up the capacity to isolate, trace, carry out tests and most importantly, to set out an exit strategy. But as the lockdown gets stricter and as cases spike, what we know is that the government has lost its eight-week window of containment and we are back to square one.
Meanwhile, the government is framing the lockdown narrative upon the political intoning that human lives are not subject to price and are more valuable than the mounting economic costs. Given how things currently stand, we do not need economic expertise to recognize that net consequences of the lockdown have been catastrophic. As the economy is put into hibernation, the production from agriculture, manufacturing to service has faced the brunt of meltdown, international flow of goods has halted and remittance has plummeted; coupled with mass layoffs and return of migrant workers, the unemployment is bound to surge. According to the study commissioned by the UNDP, three in every five employees of both formal and informal MSMEs in Nepal have lost their jobs. Alongside, quarter of the Nepalese population lives below absolute poverty and nearly 70 percent of the economically active population are part of the informal economy with no regular income and job guarantee, which makes it all the more difficult for them to sustain themselves in the absence of external support measures.
So, as effects of extended period of discontinued economic activity accumulate over time, the population is to face a double whammy in the form of decreased economic activity and the exposure to the virus. For the vulnerable class, the trade-off indeed will be the possibility of getting the virus and feeding their families; and in the balance of probabilities, the outcome of the latter is going to be much worse than the former. And yet the government narrative is based on the dichotomy between saving lives and the economy instead of saving all lives.
Just because the lockdown seemed prudent initially, does not make it an optimal policy for an indefinite period of time. The policy choice need not be death by virus or death by starvation; but a balance of both health and economic interests because at the end of the day, ALL lives matter.