I take the opportunity of a quiet Saturday to catch up with my friend Kanchhi in Kathmandu. I was supposed to be in Nepal now, but for obvious reasons couldn’t travel. They are on their 12th day of lockdown today. From the sound of it, this is largely being complied with– probably much better than here in the UK, where (as the government feared) it looks like the recently arrived good weather is tempting people out of their homes and into the parks. Kanchhi puts the compliance in Nepal down to fear: people have seen countries like the UK, US and Italy failing to cope with COVID-19, and they know that Nepal is far less well-equipped to deal with it. The potential consequences of a large-scale outbreak don’t bear thinking about.
So far, Nepal has detected few cases. Only 9 have been confirmed as of today, although this surely says more about the shortage of testing than the true number of people infected (just as with the figures in the UK, and elsewhere). But today’s government press-conference did bring some significant news: of the three new cases confirmed today, one was the first known case of domestic transmission (the other 8 cases so far were all people returning from abroad).
It is becoming clear in the West that there is a substantial lag between infection and cases being confirmed – from what I’ve read, something like 14 days or even more. So unless today’s case in Nepal is an isolated incident of domestic transmission (unlikely), it seems certain that 2 weeks from now, Nepal is going to find itself with an epidemic on a much larger scale.
Kanchhi is worried what this will mean for people in Nepal for a couple of reasons. One is that the ability of most people to sustain themselves through a lockdown is soon going to reach its limits. Her mum, she laughs, has stockpiled enough rice and pulses to last them for many months. But a huge proportion of the population depend on wages earnt from daily labouring. They may have had enough food laid in to last for a few days, but it is going to be physically impossible for many people to keep themselves isolated for much longer. The second cause for concern is the number of people who, when news of the imminent arrival of a lockdown began to spread, left Kathmandu and headed back to their villages. They did so in their thousands, both thinking they would be safer from the virus there, and that food would be easier to secure in the village. But how many of them unwittingly took the virus with them, to rural parts of the country where health services are almost completely non-existent? Surely there are some dark days ahead for Nepal.