Lockdowns and prohibitions, no doubt, control the spread of the coronavirus and save people from infections. But, at the same time, they also endanger livelihoods. Businesses have not been able to comfortably operate since the first lockdown in March and as a result, they have laid off hundreds of workers. A recent survey by the Nepal Rastra Bank showed that 61 per cent of businesses have been shut down completely and 22.5 per cent of employees lost their jobs. Those employees that still have a job have also had their salaries reduced and allowances cut. Youths, especially in rural areas, have already started leaving for India and third countries to make ends meet. The current restrictions may be saving people from the coronavirus but they are causing financial ruins and livelihood devastations. Even at the national level, there are fears that we will witness a negative growth rate this year. Experts are warning that our financial sector may be heading to a point from where it can never recover. This is very sad because our economy had started to find its footing over the past few years. So, for the sake of economy, the current prohibitory orders need to be loosened.
On the government’s part, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli appeared positive about easing the restrictions and facilitating the operation of industries and enterprises in Sunday’s meeting with representatives with the business community. The private sector has pledged to adhere to the health protocols and are themselves calling for strict actions against businesses that do not follow the government regulations. The prime minister, concerned ministers, government officials and business representatives all appeared to be on the same page about reopening and all sides understood the urgent need to deal with the fiscal challenges that the state and the citizens are currently facing. This understanding and agreement should now be immediately translated into actions. The situation is getting bleaker by the day and those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy cannot afford to wait any longer.
The local levels and district administrations have understandable reservations about opening up normal activities. An active public often compromises on safety and a spike in COVID-19 cases can overwhelm the health system. But strict discipline regarding health safety cannot be compromised. The authorities should start focusing on expanded testing and contact tracing to break the chain of virus transmission. We have already begun moving forward in this direction with our daily test numbers averaging at more than 10,000. We also have a mandatory mask rule in place, which people have largely been following. While opening up economic activities, those who violate health protocols and put lives in danger should be dealt with stringent punitive actions. The Prime Minister has, time and again, iterated that the government would not let people go hungry. The best way to do that is to get them working again. His pledge to take quick steps to address the challenges faced by the private sector is encouraging and needs to be backed and enforced by the concerned sectors. Life is at risk due to disease and hunger, and a balanced approach is needed to deal with the difficult situation.