The sky is a cloudless, cornflower blue, and a few Himalayan vultures wheel high above. Kathmandu’s streets are markedly quiet on my morning walk to the office; schools are closed - visibly reducing the volume of traffic and the air pollution. Many of Kathmandu’s non-permanent residents have left or are leaving for their rural homes. Foreigners have crowded onto the last few flights. Our office is still open, but only just. Already numbers are reduced; those staff who must use public buses to come to work have been asked not to do so. We are practicing social distancing in our interactions, testing virtual meetings from our desks, and making sure that group communication by social media is effective. Regular hand washing and the use of sanitizers have become a near obsession. We are conscious that these may be the last days that we can meet face to face for some time, so we need to make the most of them. The feeling is of the calm before the storm.
Planning with scenarios
As is the norm in times of change, we are planning according to different potential scenarios. Scenario 1 is the current situation of the covid-19 threat, with no staff member having yet, to our knowledge, been infected. This is not so easy to determine as testing facilities in Nepal are very limited (to date 528 persons have been tested in the whole country; only one tested positive – already several months ago). However, we all know the covid-19 symptoms. So far, none of our staff has complained of them.
Scenario 2 is if or when a staff member is infected. And scenario 3 is if or when the government makes the decision to shut down all but essential services. Over the course of this week and last, the government has taken various steps to limit public gatherings and international arrivals, but our scenario 1 adjustments were already in keeping with such announcements. It currently seems likely that we will jump to scenario 3 before we have reached scenario 2.
Halting activities when they are normally at their peak
Spring is the time of sunshine and low rainfall – a time to forge ahead with all forms of outdoor work, whether it is digging water supply channels, the last of our post-earthquake reconstruction work, or supervising trail bridge construction. Our water supply work, funded through a variety of donors, is out in Karnali province, in the West of Nepal. The last of the reconstruction work under the Employment Fund Skills for Reconstruction project, supporting the most vulnerable and left behind in rebuilding their homes, is a project of the Nepal government and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (humanitarian department); Helvetas provides technical assistance. The project operates in selected municipalities of Central – East Nepal. The trail bridge work is a national program implemented by the government of Nepal with the support of SDC, and technical assistance through Helvetas. Although we focus in the West and South East of the country (provinces 6, 2 and 1), we have activities and staff - some 300 of them - across the country.
The way in which we work is to engage local communities in everything we do – from planning, implementation and maintenance by infrastructure users, close collaboration with municipalities, to higher level discussions at provincial and federal level. We are also heavily involved in training, especially vocational training through two SDC and Government of Nepal projects, ENSSURE, Enhanced Skills for Sustainable and Rewarding Employment, and SaMi, the Safer Migration project. It is not longer possible to conduct any such meetings or trainings; effectively, almost all activities are halted.
The saddest thing about times like these is that although everyone is at risk from the corona virus, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer the most. This is not only in terms of access to health care, but especially in terms of activities foregone and livelihood opportunities lost.
We are not an organization working in health, so we cannot offer support in the feared medical emergency ahead. We can however spread the message of prevention – of good hygiene and social distancing. This we are doing. We are also preparing for all possible ways that we can continue working and engaging our staff in constructive activities: writing up their work, reading those important documents that they never had time to study in detail, self-learning through online courses. Staying safe – and being in regular contact, ready to mobilize quickly should this be possible or necessary.
As Nepalis are fond of saying, they have better immunity than most – they have needed it to survive this far. There is also much familiarity with shop closures and shortages of essential supplies; people have lived through such difficulties during periods of political strife and after the earthquake. Thus, so far there is none of the panic buying seen in the West; it is normal to keep essential stocks at home. The tendency is more to put a smile on one’s face, to joke – and to hope for the best.