Friday, 27 November, 2020

Rationale Behind Enforcing Lockdown

Uttam Maharjan


THE government has once again extended the nationwide lockdown till May 18 despite supplications from various quarters to lift it due to the economic chaos it has created. Several parliamentary panels, high-level crisis management committees and political parties and leaders had recommended that no lockdown be imposed on areas with no COVID-19 case. On the other hand, the high-level committee for the prevention and control of COVID-19 headed by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Iswor Pokhrel had recommended the government to extend the lockdown but to ease restrictions in districts with no recorded case of COVID-19.

In fact, the enforcement of the lockdown since March 24 has thrown socio-economic conditions of the country out of gear. The closure of industries and factories has hit labourers hard, especially those who are forced to live from hand to mouth. However, the government has eased the lockdown to some extent for some industries, businesses and freight services since May 8. With this relaxation, banks and cooperatives have run their operations for more hours than before. And insurance companies have come into re-operation. The share market will, however, reopen from May 12. Likewise, government offices have resumed their operations since May 10. In a similar vein, industrial production, development works, freight services and businesses relating to food and medicines, among others, have been allowed to resume. All these measures are designed to revive economic activity. However, restrictions are still in force on academic institutions, training centres, shopping malls dealing in non-food items, fun parks, party palaces, cinema halls, salons, beauty parlours, health clubs, futsal centres and suchlike.
There are, however, risks associated with operating business as the number of COVID-19 cases is rising in the country. Therefore, the concerned district-based COVID-19 crisis management centre is required to ensure that risk assessment is properly conducted and need-based health protocol is abided by. If any risk is seen, the concerned institutions or services can be closed by the local bodies or administrations. When the lockdown was enforced on March 24, there were only two COVID-19 cases. As the number of cases was almost negligible at the time, it was hoped that the effect of the disease would not be dire. However, the number of cases has since been soaring so much so that the number has now reached 120 as of Monday morning.
In fact, the lockdown has not been enforced strictly. During the lockdown, many people have fled the Kathmandu Valley and many people have entered the Valley. On the other hand, many people have entered the country from across the southern border. Birgunj, Udaypur, Nepalgunj and Kapivastu have now become virus hotspots. During the lockdown, entry to or from the country or any city like Kathmandu should have been restricted completely so as to prevent the spread of the disease. Failure to do so has resulted in dire consequences. And the very purpose of the lockdown has been defeated.
However, the government is now cautious. Draconian measures are now in place to enforce the lockdown effectively. Tabs are being kept on the vehicles entering Kathmandu from Nagdhunga and other entry points under one pretext or the other. Even the movement of pass-holders is being closely monitored to prevent the misuse of passes.
The lockdown is a preventive measure. It is also an expedient for buying time so that adequate preparations can be made to control the contagion. But the government seems to take it as a sole measure for controlling the disease. That is why critics are of the opinion that the government has failed to utilise the lockdown to accelerate measures to trace and treat the patients and gradually relax the lockdown. Contrary to expectations, the government has not categorised various districts of the country into red, orange and green zones, arguing that it is not necessary in a small country like ours. Critics also say that the government seems to be watching how India will respond to the disease instead of taking measures based on the ground realities.
As the impact of the COVID-19 on the economy of the country has loomed large, the country cannot afford the lockdown for long. The Central Bureau of Statistics has projected economic growth for this fiscal year at just 2.27 per cent in sharp contrast to the ambitious 8.5 per cent initially set by the government. So it would be prudent to enforce restrictions on the movement of people to or from the country by sealing the border with India. At the same time, testing and contact tracing need to be sped up. That about 15,000 PCR tests have been conducted so far exposes the inadequacy of tests given that a large number of people have showed positive for the disease in Birgunj, Udayapur and Nepalgunj.

Segregation of areas
If the COVID-19 rages in the country, the country may not be in a position to control it given its poor healthcare infrastructure. Even highly developed countries like the US, Italy, Britain, France and Spain are finding it heavy going to control the disease. So by stepping up preventive measures, the lockdown should be gradually eased by, for example, segregating various areas into red, orange and green zones. Before the latest extension of the lockdown, there was talk of creating such zones based on the number of positive cases, proposing the entire Terai belt, the Kathmandu Valley, Udayapur and some hilly districts as a red zone. The proposal was not, however, implemented. Anyway, the government should realise that the lockdown is not the only way-out; it should be utilised as a step towards making preparations for the control of the disease.

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

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