Wednesday, 19 May, 2021

Avoiding Second Wave Of COVID-19

Uttam Maharjan

The COVID-19 pandemic has been around us since December 2019. In recent times, the number of COVID-19 patients has surged in Nepal. The tally of active cases has also increased. For the last one and a half months, the disease had seemed to be under control. But an uptick in cases in India, especially in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, has contributed to an upsurge in cases here as well. This is expected because Nepal and India share a porous yet unregulated border and a large number of people move from one country to another every day. The only way-out is sealing the border but this is a Herculean task.
The government has taken the increase in COVID-19 cases in India and other countries seriously. This phenomenon has broken the complacency that the respiratory contagion is coming under control in the country. Now the government has urged people to abide by the health protocols such as avoiding gatherings, crowds or assemblies; wearing facemasks; washing hands frequently; using sanitisers; and maintaining social distancing.

The scare has come when the country is planning to inoculate 72 per cent of its population within a year. Till now, around 1.7 million people have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The government has taken the policy of inoculating frontline people working in the health sector, those with chronic diseases, the elderly and people working in the civil service, banks, schools and other offices. Now the vaccination drive has remained suspended due to the unavailability of vaccines. The country has received Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from Serum Institute of India (SII) and from the World Health Organisation (WHO) under the COVAX initiative. When the country could not get an additional one million doses from SII under the purchase agreement for two million doses, the vaccination drive had to be postponed. In fact, SII is facing flak in India for supplying vaccines to other countries when the cases are surging there. Now the drug-maker has temporarily halted the export of vaccines to other countries.
Not all vaccines are suitable for the country for lack of cold chain facilities. Only those vaccines that can be stored at fridge temperatures can be used by the country. Among such vaccines, the Oxford-AstraZeneca (Covishield) is the best option. It costs US$ 3 or 4 per dose. On the other hand, the Sinopharm vaccine costs US$ 30 per dose, whereas the Covaxin vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech costs US$ 16 per dose. The vaccines received in grant or purchased by the government are administered to the people free of cost. The government has also given permission to the private sector to purchase vaccines. But they have to keep their profit margin to not more than 10 per cent. This step taken by the government is intended to overcome the scarcity of vaccines, as is the case now, in order to make the vaccination drive a success.
The second and the third waves in some countries of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit many of them. The variant of the coronavirus that first surfaced in Britain has spread to many other countries. The surge in COVID-19 cases in India is supposedly ascribed to the new mutant variant. As some people coming from India to Nepal have tested positive, tocsins have rung in the country.
The first lockdown was enforced in the country on March 24 last year. The lockdown and subsequent prohibitory orders continued for five or six months between them. This adversely affected the economy of the country. Almost all sectors of the economy, including tourism, hotels, airlines, industries and education, took a knock on an unprecedented scale.
As per the report of the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 1.2 million people have been pushed into poverty and 1.5 million people have lost jobs due to the pandemic. As per the Ministry of Industries, Commerce and Supplies, 89 per cent of the industries have revived and 16 per cent of the revived industries have started to earn a profit. Most of the industries that have still remained shut are small and cottage industries that have not been able to get relief packages announced by the government. The Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) has distributed relief packages amounting to Rs. 130 billion in the form of concessional loans to various industries to revive them. Now export and import businesses have come back to normal based on the volume of transactions. However, the gross domestic product (GDP) has dropped by 2 per cent for the first time in six decades.

Harsh measures
The government has hinted that should COVID-19 cases surge, harsh measures like lockdowns may be enforced again to break the chain of transmission. This will affect the economy perhaps more severely than previously. Some sectors of the economy such as tourism, hospitality and education have not come back to normal yet. The country has been recommended for the league of developing countries. Nepal will be elevated to a developing country in 2026. For this, infrastructure development should be given a top priority. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may throw a spanner into the works. So the recent surge in COVID-19 cases is a matter of grave concern.
The government should take every step to thwart the emergence of the possible second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Learning lessons from the pandemic itself, vigilance should be maintained at the Nepal-India border and the Tribhuvan International Airport. Quarantine and isolation centres also need to be kept on standby in case the transmission of the disease picks up. The most important thing is that the people should not care two hoots when it comes to taking precautionary measures against the disease. They should shed a lackadaisical attitude, if any, towards the disease so as to keep its second wave at bay.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.