Chinese President Xi Jinping and Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli at a welcome dinner in Kathmandu on October 12, 2019. Photo: AFP via The Rising Nepal / Handout

The world has been reeling under the havoc created by a new disease called Covid-19 that originated in Wuhan, China. Such has been the global spread of this potentially lethal disease that even the rich and powerful countries are grappling to contain its menace. The pandemic has shown that countries need to be more united than ever in their fight against this outbreak.

Covid-19 has killed thousands worldwide, and the death toll is still rising. While its effect has subsided gradually in China, it has started peaking in Europe and elsewhere, with Italy and Iran affected the most after China. Many countries including Italy, Spain, France and Belgium have imposed complete lockdowns in an effort to contain its effects, while the United States has also seen a continuous rise in infections.

South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population. It is also one of the poorest regions in the world, with meager health facilities. As the world’s second most populous country, and which also borders China, India is vulnerable to a rapid spread of the coronavirus that causes this disease. Fortunately, the effects have not been devastating yet, although it could surge in the days ahead if adequate preventive and corrective measures are not taken.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently took the lead to hold a videoconference of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to initiate ways to counter the spread of the disease. He proposed to set up a SAARC emergency fund to fight the coronavirus and pledged US$10 million from India’s side.  

Nepal stands at a critical juncture during this crisis. Located between China and India, it is highly susceptible to incidents emanating from its immediate neighbors. While at this writing there has been only one positive case of the virus in the country, the stakes are too high to be ignored.

Nepal shares an open border with India leading to the free flow of people and goods. Numerous Chinese persons work in Nepal and a lot of Nepali businessmen and students frequent China. Hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrant workers working in the Middle East and elsewhere have not stopped traveling back home. If these activities go unchecked, it could aid the transmission of the virus in Nepal sooner rather than later.

Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli recently underwent a kidney transplant and is not in a position to carry out rigorous activities demanded of a national leader in emergency situations. A high-level mechanism for preventing the coronavirus’ spread has been constituted under Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ishwor Pokharel. Some of the general measures taken by the government so far include canceling on-arrival visas, reduction of international flights, preparation of testing centers and identification of hospitals and isolation centers for infected persons.

As Nepal lacks adequate resources to tackle an outbreak of the disease, the primary aim of the government should be preventive measures. Even so, the government has not been able to assure the public that it is capable of handling the situation. The global phenomenon has already shown how difficult it is to undertake corrective measures. Therefore, the government’s approach and efforts should be to ensure increasing the checkups and isolating suspected carriers of the virus so as to block the spread of the disease. However, it has been felt that the government’s approach has been far from satisfactory.

Stringent measures should immediately be taken by the Nepalese government to curb the threats posed by the coronavirus. The screening mechanism at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport does not look convincing. There is no mechanism to check and follow up whether people coming to Nepal are staying in self-quarantine for 14 days as per the standard guidelines. It is high time that the government suspends international flights for a certain period of time before it is too late. The federal and provincial parliament sessions should also be adjourned.

The government seriously needs to step up tests for the virus as recommended by the World Health Organization. After a lot of uncertainty, it has finally been decided to shut down schools and colleges. Some schools are still conducting entrance exams for Grade 1, with scores of children and parents flocking to such venues. The government’s move to continue with secondary-school examinations is baffling.

People also need to be more sensitive to safeguard themselves and the community from the virus. At the moment, they do not seem to be fully receptive to the idea of social distancing. Social gatherings are taking place unabated. Restaurants and nightclubs are operating normally. The B Division soccer league has still not been suspended. These are some examples that show that neither the government nor the general public is completely serious about the dangers of this disease.

The threat to Nepal’s economy due to Covid-19 is yet to be gauged. Remittances contribute nearly 30% of Nepal’s gross domestic product. As the labor market in the Middle East is bound to suffer from this pandemic, it will certainly have a detrimental effect on Nepal’s economy. If India decides to shut all of its bordering trade points with Nepal, it will lead to shortages of commodities. In recent days, people have resorted to panic buying and hoarding of daily essentials.

Modi’s initiative of the SAARC leaders’ videoconference is a sign that nations need to come together at times of crisis, forgetting their rivalries. SAARC, which had largely been sidelined by India for the last couple of years, may find relevance once again.

This is an apt moment to restart regional cooperation for the sake of humanity. China, on its part, has also pledged support to Nepal in every possible way to tackle the coronavirus. Nepal should not panic but be more prepared to deal with the pandemic and step up awareness campaigns across the country.

While states have always sought to increase their national power, this pandemic has yet again proved that human security is far more important than anything else. Therefore, the world needs to come together in a fight against this disease at this hour of crisis. And as the old Persian adage goes, “this too shall pass.”

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa is an analyst and writer on topics related to international relations. He is the president and managing director of the Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST).