It’s already May and the pandemic continues to sweep across the continents, in different directions and at different intensity it seems…. In Nepal, like almost everywhere else in the world, schools and businesses have closed, transport has stopped running, restaurants shut their doors, and markets become abandoned. On the positive side, the air quality in cities like Kathmandu has improved significantly. Studies have found that over 3 million people in Nepal suffer from respiratory problems, most are those living in cities and many are children. Thousands of deaths are caused by the air pollution each year. COPD (in adults) alone accounts for about 10% of all deaths. So to be able see a glimpse of Mount Everest 200km away the other day, for the first time apparently, is amazing! See picture above. But like everywhere else, the virus spreading also results in a national crisis. A huge proportion of people in Nepal get their income directly or indirectly through tourism, and with this sector also having to close down, unemployment, which is already high in Nepal, has dropped dramatically. Unlike many Western countries there is no 80% government pay of your salary or other grants available. Nepal has been in lockdown for 2 months as of today. The closures happened very suddenly right during the final exams and end of the school year, and nobody knows when they will open again. Home schooling is barely possible, for many reasons; lack of internet or any form of communication between teachers and students, no ipads or computers, and many parents are illiterate, etc. As the majority of people don’t have access to news channels, information is spread by word of mouth, and people had very little time to prepare for the lockdown. A person visiting a relative or a friend for example, may have been stuck there, as public transport came to a halt and the streets were being policed. Only some food shops have been allowed to open for a couple of hours a day. Most people have stayed at home, with their families, ‘living off the land’, that is, if they have land. They may have rice and lentils left from their last harvest. But some will already have run out.
Last week we had a chat with Krishna from Alliance Nepal and discussed what we can do to help, taking in to account that this is not just a temporary situation. It’s possible the crisis is only just starting in Nepal, and nobody knows how long it will last. Together with the headmaster at the Pame school (picture below) they suggested providing food supplies for some specific families of children at the school where we have been teaching, who have been particularly badly affected. We want to focus on long-term support for food as the primary necessity, and on the basis that most people in the villages have access to at least some land, we felt that growing a variety of their own vegetables could be a sustainable first step. Nepal has a lot of fertile land and the season right now is ideal (before the monsoon) to plant seeds in the earth. People can generally get supplies of rice and if they can’t, we are also happy to provide regular sacks to keep them going. At the children’s home supported by The Nestling Trust, they have already built their own ‘green house’ and are planting cabbage, spinach, onions, garlic, pumpkin, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, etc. They’ve practically become self- sufficient, which is wonderful. Last autumn, thanks to donations they were also able to buy 2 buffalos and some chickens (have a look at their FB page for more info). So this week we sent Krishna £600 of donated money so that he can source the relevant seeds and bulbs, compost, etc. for those who most need them. In addition, he will provide education on how to start off farming ‘new’ types of vegetables. We also talked about the idea of how to over time encourage community initiatives. Variety is obviously both more nutritious and growing your own range of crops can be a fun activity, both for parents and children. We hope all of you who have donated recently will be happy with this idea! And we wish them a successful veg growing season!
Just briefly, a bit more about how the pandemic could spread in Nepal; Over the years, as a result of the continuous high unemployment, many people take the decision to leave and work in countries like India, Malaysia and the Middle East as labourers. It’s estimated that some 3-4 million Nepalis work abroad, which is the highest per capita migrant workers in the world. That’s about 10% of the population (and accounts for up to 30% of Nepal’s gdp). Often the conditions in which they live and work would be considered appalling by any standard and the work is strenuous. A family may sell their land, borrow money or do what they can for one family member to ‘buy’ the job through an agency, or worse, ‘buy through a loan’ to be paid back once they start earning. The job might cost them $1000-2000. The agency organises their passport and papers and promises a salary in the region of $150-300 per month, they are asked to put their signature on forms they may not fully understand (perhaps in English), and are sent to an unknown place in a country where they probably don’t understand the language, culture or custom, to live in crammed barracks or rooms with poor hygienic facilities. Their passports are taken and they may be told that they have to work for a year or two to pay back the full amount that it cost them to get the job in the first place. And they may not even get the salary they were promised. They have no choice but to do as ordered. Physical abuse is not unheard of. Often they have no rights or support, nor the option to leave. Never having left their village they probably don’t even know how or where to turn for help, or how to contact their consulate or embassy. Men tend to work in construction, under scorching temperatures, e.g. in the desert, for 14 hours a day. Women often end up as ‘house keepers’. The lucky ones may manage to go home to visit their family every few years, hopefully bringing some well-earned money with them, providing there is any left after having paid for their flight. It’s hard to say what proportion end up having this kind of time as migrant labourers, but few stories emerge from people who have had enjoyable years working abroad or who eventually return home as rich people. Currently, due to the pandemic, there are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers jobless, money-less, helpless and probably at risk from coronavirus ‘stranded’ in many of these countries. Thousands started walking for days from India (along with Indian migrant workers from different home states), and risked their lives by trying to cross rivers and mountains to get back to their villages in Nepal. It is believed that the reason Covid-19 cases in Nepal is now increasing, despite 2 months of lockdown, is because many of them are now reaching Nepal and could be carriers of the virus, which they bring in to remote villages all over the country. And with few and far between, poorly equipped hospitals and health posts (about 40% of the pre-2015 earthquake ones have not yet been reconstructed), it is unlikely that people even get tested, not to mention get the treatment they would need. And who knows how much accurate information on disease prevention actually reaches the villages in the high Himalayas. What they hear tend to be rumours. And rumours can be both frightening, misleading and lead to even more harm. Most labourers, especially in the Gulf region have no option but to wait, and with no earnings, many end up sleeping on the streets, without any protection and struggling to get food. Officials have said they expect about half a million migrant workers back when the countries begin to lift their lockdown in early June, but there is no strategy by the government on how to bring them back home. As of today there are 603 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Nepal and 3 deaths, but the true numbers may be different as every case might not be counted in the official statistics. This brief summary is just part of a worrying situation. We are of course wishing, hoping and praying it won’t get worse, and the good thing is, that people in the cities seem to have taken lockdown quite seriously, perhaps as a result of the scare tactics. But with it comes hardship and suffering. And for how long is it sustainable? People need to live and eat, and there comes a time when the risk of contagion outweighs safety from it, because what is considered ‘safe’ could equate to an even higher risk to life from poverty and starvation than the virus itself, on both an individual and population level.
What we can do is very small, and we can only help a small number of people. But we have to start somewhere. We will keep getting updates from people who are living through this now, i.e. our friends and through reliable NGOs. And we know that many charity organisations are putting in huge efforts, e.g. H.E.L.P, Next Generation Nepal, Child Rescue Nepal, Kétaa Kéti, The Nestling Trust, etc. But asking for donations is even harder during times when everybody is going through a difficult phase financially themselves. Take a look at their websites or FB pages if you’re interested to see what they are doing and where you could help.
Finally, just to mention, the family we helped repair and rebuild their house is incredibly grateful for their new room with stable / solid walls, a new roof, electricity and an almost finished kitchen (see pictures above) – stove still to be built. Thank you again to everybody who has helped to make this possible. We were not able to go to Nepal in April as planned, but waiting patiently until the world gets control of the situation, and then we will go again, to see our friends, help with teaching at the schools and provide supplies, uniforms or whatever else might be of priority to get them back on their feet.
Namaste and Shanti to everybody.