Nepal, like any other country, is struggling with the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when both the government and the public are struggling to put in place a system to address the pandemic in the best way possible, any report which publishes any information that could mislead or create fear among the population of a country could have more adverse effects than support the fight against the pandemic, opined Dr. Sharad Onta, a public health expert.
Doubtful report Dr. Onta was referring to a DFID-commissioned report jointly published, and recently made public, by UKaid, Oxford Policy Management and University of Oxford, Modelling of COVID-19 Strategies in Nepal on projection of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Nepal. Nepali health experts, however, find this report alarming and one that raises serious doubts about the projections in the report, which are very misleading and could cause panic within the country. “The data exposed by this research related to the infections and deaths due to COVID-19 does not match with the actual data coming out within Nepal, therefore, the concerns raised by Nepali health experts are valid,” said Shiva Gaunle, editor of Centre for Investigative Journalism, Nepal. A group of health experts, including Dr. Onta, Country Coordinator of People's Health Movement, Nepal; Dr. Mahesh K. Maskey, public health professional and former ambassador of Nepal to China; Dr. Badri Raj Pande, public health professional and Founding President of Nepal Health Economics Association; and Dr. Aruna Upreti, public health professional associated with Nepal Public Health Foundation; Dr. Sameer Mani Dixit, public health professional and founding Director, Centre for Molecular Dynamics, Nepal; Dr. Abhinav Vaidya, public health professional and Professor at Kathmandu Medical College have issued a joint press release stating that they wish to draw serious attention to this report. They have stated that they disagree with this Oxford Modelling of COVID-19 Strategies in Nepal. “We appreciate the Government of Nepal, Ministry of Health and Population for making their official stand public regarding the report Modelling of COVID-19 Strategies in Nepal and we request the people not to panic due to unbelievable number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 projected in the report,” opined these health experts. Furthermore, the statement provides information about the fact that Nepal is fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic as per its own capacity within the public and non-state actors and so far is doing comparatively well among South Asian countries. A prediction of the pandemic situation in the country is, apparently, a basis of planning to mitigate the problem. It is obvious that such predictions should be based on available data and rational assumptions that will reveal the results close to the reality. A wrong prediction will misguide the policy and planning, resulting in failure to address the problem, opine the public health experts. This report has predicted that, in case of low disruption strategy, the peak of the epidemic in Nepal will extend from early June to early September, reaching a maximum number of about 846,000 new COVID-19 cases per day with less than 10 per cent of cases (75,000) reported to the health system and 49,200 cumulative deaths due to COVID-19 by the end of the year. The same report states that in case of medium disruption strategy, the peak of the epidemic will extend from mid-July to early October, reaching a maximum of nearly 548,000 new COVID-19 cases per day with less than 10 per cent (50,000) of cases being reported to the health system and around 5,000 less deaths compared to low disruption strategy. The Oxford report also predicts that in case of high disruption strategy, the peak of the epidemic will extend from mid-June to late October, reaching a maximum of nearly 531,000 new cases per day with less than 10 per cent of cases (46,800) reported to the health system and 11,300 less deaths compared to medium disruption strategy. The above-mentioned public health experts state that they strongly disagree with the results of this Oxford modeling. According to them, these results are nowhere close to the present incidence of new cases and deaths due to COVID-19. Their argument is that this report has not provided any table of monthly cases and deaths which would be easier to compare with the actual reported numbers according to the data given by the Government of Nepal. They cite an example from the report “for example, in medium disruption scenario of total new 548,000 COVID-19 cases with less than 10 per cent (50,000) actually reported per day falls towards the last week of August, 2020” and state that this is about 50 times higher than the actual scenario in Nepal.
Mismatch The press release by the Nepali health experts demands explanations from the authors about the mismatch between the prediction in the report and the currently reported situation of new COVID-19 cases and deaths per day. They expressed grave concerns that when reports linked to prestigious universities like Oxford are made public, the data given can create sensation and panic among the population of the country that is researched on. I have also heard similar queries by general Nepali people on the validity of this research. It is, therefore, the right time now for answers to be made available by the authors, including Professor Lisa White, Dr. Nicholas Letchford, Dr. Sunil Pokharel, Dr. Dipti Lata, and Dr Rashid Zaman to the questions raised by the Nepali experts.
(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights advocate and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)