Updated: Jul 14
Finding Hope in a time when COVID-19 comes on top of all the other things. Alan Barker, Partnership Advisor with our local partner INF Nepal reflects on the resilience of the Nepali people in the face of coronavirus.
Nepal is famous for Mount Everest (Sagarmatha as it is known here), Gorkha soldiers, and trekking holidays that take you, sweating and puffing, through stunning mountainous scenery. It’s not so well known for the many disasters that regularly inflict themselves on the country. Over the 20 years that I have lived here, the country has seen far too many, big and small. There was the 11-year civil war which saw 11,000 killed and many thousands more injured and disabled. The ‘Royal Massacre’ in 2001 wiped out all but of few of the then royal family in one shocking night. In everyone’s recent memory are the two devastating earthquakes in the space of a couple of weeks that happened in 2015. Fast on the heels of the earthquakes came the blockade of the India-Nepal border that stopped imports of all essential goods and brought the entire country to a grinding halt for several months. Nepal also suffers from regular ‘extreme weather events’. Ninety people were killed by lightning strikes last year.
On top of that are the annual monsoon seasons that spell death and destruction to remote communities from floods and landslides. Even as I write this, it’s monsoon, and there are reports of a landslide that has killed six people, displaced 400 and destroyed 18 houses in one village. And that won’t be the only one this season.
Nepal also has a very turbulent society. Violent political groups very quickly bring parts of the country to a standstill through ‘bandhs’ (‘closures’ or ‘strikes’) – shops, offices and schools are forced to shut and traffic on the streets is stopped. And I’ve lost count of the number of riots and curfews that have affected everyday life in the different places I’ve lived in during my time in Nepal. And there are the countless individual disasters that strike families every day, such as health crises when there’s little or no health care available in their area. For example, leprosy, congenital conditions or accidents that cause disability or health issues that need palliative care input.
And now there’s Covid-19, lockdown, a destroyed tourism industry, and Nepali migrant workers forced to return home penniless from India or the various other countries that they have travelled to with the hope of escaping poverty. More mouths to feed and less money with which to do it.
However, one thing that all the above disasters have built into the Nepali people is resilience. They are used to insecurity in the present and uncertainty about what the future will look like. They have had to learn to cope when there are only limited and inconsistent social security and health structures. So, can we say COVID-19 is ‘just another’ disaster that somehow Nepal will have to deal with? Some days it has seemed like that. As I ventured out, lockdown seemed to be like the all too familiar ‘bandhs: shops half-open, a few brave souls out on their motorbikes. Now lockdown is easing, and it seems that everything is back to normal. Tick that disaster off – what’s next? COVID-19 is different though isn’t it? COVID comes on top of all the other things. It’s COVID and the landslide that has just destroyed a village causing someone to have a spinal cord injury and in need of treatment in our hospital. It’s lockdown induced poverty and an unexpected leprosy diagnosis that causes the bottom to fall out of a family’s world. It’s COVID and the fact that some people are still living in temporary accommodation five years after the earthquakes or three years after the terrible flood that inundated several areas. It’s lockdown induced loss of income on top of the ‘normal’ level of grinding poverty in which many have to live.
So what can be done? Does it all sound too bleak? Out of control? Hopeless? Well, I wouldn’t be here writing this if I thought that was the case. INF Nepal is offering hope in the form of food relief to those families who have nothing. We are reaching out to people with disabilities or in need of palliative care who would typically be able to get to our hospital but can’t because of lockdown. We’ve expanded the outreach work from our hospital to get out to people because they can’t get to us. In the community projects, we’re carefully looking at how the activities we had planned can be revised or implemented in the light of the effects of COVID – either from a health perspective or by helping people find alternative sources of income. And these are the things that give me hope because we can make a difference to that one family who has just run out of food and has no hope of getting any tomorrow either. We can give rehabilitation to the individual with a spinal cord injury, or treatment to a person with leprosy whom no one else will go near. We can help to empower people with no hope to work together to discover new ways of farming or getting an income. Things are difficult here for so many people, and COVID is only compounding those. Still, with the natural resilience of Nepali people, coupled with support from EMMS International and our other partners in the ‘west’, we can get through this, and the next disaster… and the next.
Update (14 July 2020):
Nepal is now facing another threat that will cause death and destruction across the country. The annual monsoon season has begun and already in several places torrential rain has caused flooding and triggered landslides that have taken lives and destroyed homes, land and crops. From 8th July to date, based on government figures, 52 people have died through landslides and floods. The worst affected areas are spread across the country but there have been some deadly landslides in Kaski district, not far from Pokhara where our head office and Green Pastures Hospital are based. Another of our working districts, Kalikot, has also seen flooding and landslides. In addition to the dead, another 45 people are currently missing and 244 houses have been damaged or destroyed. We are currently seeing how best we can help the affected communities.
Alan Barker, INF (Partnership Advisor)