Covid-19 pandemic exposes housing, food, water and sanitation problems in Nepal

What is the context?

The government authorities seem content that people are obeying the lockdown regulations which keep on changing at the local level. The authorities believe that there is a positive correlation between the lockdown on the streets and public safety from the spread of the virus: the stricter the lockdown, the safer the population. The end of lockdown is not certain yet while the reports from the ground clearly show the lockdown effects – difficulty and hardship among farming communities, squatters, informal sector workers, the landless and the homeless who do not have access to any social security provisions.

The Covid-19 pandemic is creating an unprecedented economic and labour market shock.  Self-employed and wage earners from informal markets are at high risk of losing regular income as agriculture sector workers continue to be affected by the lockdown and movement restrictions. Agriculture Minister Ghanashyam Bhusal has recently issued a letter addressing the local governments suggesting how they can reduce the impact among local producers, farmers, and workers. He has also been lobbying not to shut down agricultural industries. However, he also fails to see the impact on street food and vegetable markets where thousands of families earn their living in rural and urban centres.

This situation will get further aggravated in the next few weeks as the cases are observed increasing in Kathmandu and in some Tarai districts. The disease has already shown its presence in both Tarai and mountainous districts where existing health systems are less equipped and less prepared to cope with the crisis. It is obvious that the virus spreads more rapidly among less equipped, and less prepared communities. Hence, immediate response measures are needed to address concerns of the underprivileged groups such as the landless, the homeless and wage workers.

The key elements to break the chain of the Covid-19 include adequate housing to maintain standard distance, a basket with fresh dietary foods, enough water, and soap to wash hands frequently and follow the standard respiratory practice. To employ and practice these protective measures as recommended by the WHO sounds too ideal for more than 80 per cent of the population in Nepal. So the recommended practices of self-protection can hardly be maintained in existing housing and settlement in both rural and urban areas in Nepal.

Hence, some policies and practical considerations to be taken into account to curb the spread of the coronavirus are presented below:

Focus on actual rather than the perceived crisis

The pandemic could be the turning point for human history and the world could have a totally different world order after this. Right now, the pandemic has pushed the whole humanity to the brink of existing science, commerce and philosophy. In this context, whatever the scale of their vision, people have started analysing the situation using the coronavirus lens. Many people are loud enough to be heard talking about the situation how it was before and how it will be after. But, there are people already less audible who are facing the harsh reality – they represent the underprivileged group. They are the real stories that portray the crisis vividly during the crisis. Their needs are very important and should be prioritised by immediate policy measures, safety-nets and supporting mechanisms rather than only analysing the past and crafting the strategies for the future.

Maintain the agri-food supply chain

The agri-food supply chain demands incessant and frequent interaction among individuals, goods, and tools, which is significantly disrupted. Thousands of agricultural entrepreneurs and small producers, as well as the street traders, are under the lockdown and their mobility is heavily curtailed providing farmers, agri-traders and street vendors a heavy toll. On one hand, people in the urban areas hardly find fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products, compromising their basic food habit further jeopardising the immune system especially of children, pregnant and lactating women as well as the elderly. On the other hand, street traders and vendors could not come along the streets and sell their products ready for sale as the government has imposed the lockdown in cities with no alternative mechanism to maintain the food chain. This has not only affected the food chain but also disrupted the income, further exacerbating the livelihood prospectus of the street traders. People working in this sector may easily lose their job and be exposed to the virus as they can hardly maintain the mobility, standard physical distance, access to water and soap frequently to wash hands. The government needs to think of providing adequate safety tools timely and support maintaining the strong food chain to respond to the crisis.

Family farming needs to be promoted

Family farmers have been able to keep the supply of food possible intact in these difficult hours. They have very important roles to play to maintain the food availability for their family members and others. There are more than 70 per cent households practising agriculture in Nepal. Protecting and supporting them with adequate agri-inputs and market linkages will help the country respond to the food shock created by the lockdown. In Kathmandu and other urban centres, local producers are contributing to the supply of fresh vegetables and other food items while the majority of the supermarkets remain closed.

Return of migrant workers from India and other countries will disrupt the whole system

According to the current data, around four million Nepalis are overseas for employment. Besides, hundreds of thousands of people have gone to various Indian states for income as seasonal migrant workers. Host countries have already begun putting pressure on them to return to Nepal. They will not be able to remain there for a longer time. The pandemic has just begun to hit our foreign employment hubs; the countries will have no option put to request the government of Nepal to take back its people or to deport them soon, with or without reviewing the employment permits. But, the Nepal government is less prepared to cope with this shock. It may create immediate chaos and longer-term disturbance that may lead to the system collapse.

The underprivileged population should be safeguarded

An overwhelming majority of informal settlers, agricultural workers, wage labourers, street vendors, petty traders, agricultural labourers, landless and homeless people will have to face the worst difficulty ranging from the shortages of water, food and proper shelter during this lockdown in the initial phase of the spread of the crisis in healthcare and emergency support systems. The examples are already on the surface. A group of skilled mason workers residing nearby my residence continue to go to their work even in this lockdown period. They have to go so that they can earn to buy foodstuffs to feed their children. Three out of five in this group have their newborn babies and lactating mothers. In Kathmandu, there are 40 squatter communities hosting more than 800,000 people. Access to water, food, and income is extensively curtailed due to the lockdown in all informal settlements and squatters.

Haphazard housing and lack of proper land-use plan should be addressed

Households sharing a common water pipe and toilet is a huge problem in the fight against the pandemic in both rural and urban areas. Many people do not own land and they find difficulty in managing own toilets and have to share a common toilet. Socio-economic marginalization and unequal power relations further jeopardise the system. Access to water in Kathmandu is a big social problem as the metropolitan city supplies water once or twice a week. House owners and tenants share the water which is inadequate for drinking and cleaning.

The current scenario in the ground tells us that the shortage of water and food is currently the major challenge followed by the landlessness and homelessness among underprivileged communities. Any plan that includes the installation of water tanks, building additional toilets, providing safe tents or housing adequate for physical distancing, land titles over the land will be instrumental in solving the problem.

The government needs to start planning the strategies that need to be put in place now and later. This lockdown period can be an opportunity to reflect on key policies and strategies that the government has been using so far in protecting the rights and providing the services to the poor.

Joshi is a national facilitator for National Engagement Strategy-Nepal.

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Joshi is a national facilitator at National Engagement Strategy-Nepal.

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