© Helvetas

Lockdown Again – and the Looming Prospect of Household Debt

Kathmandu’s normally busy ring road empty of traffic
BY: Jane Carter - 28. August 2020
© Helvetas

Returning to Kathmandu after home leave gives pause for reflection on the devastation to people’s livelihoods caused by Covid-19.

There were a few bumps as the plane headed down through the monsoonal clouds, but we landed safely on the rain-sodden tarmac of Kathmandu airport slightly ahead of time. Lined up at the side of the runway were many smaller domestic planes – grounded until September, at the earliest. There have been no regular commercial flights in Nepal – domestic or international - since 24 March, although charter flights have operated for much of that time, sometimes for exorbitant prices. Reports abound of Nepalese migrant workers in Gulf countries and Malaysia having their contracts terminated but being unable to return home due to the lack of flights. With no wages, their savings are quickly used when remaining in such countries. Various figures are quoted on the numbers thus affected; the one thing that is sure is that demand for seats on return flights outstrips supply.

Travel makes one think of all the jobs tied to so many aspects of “the world as we knew it”. On just this journey, I have met Nepalese working abroad in very different capacities – airport security workers, an air stewardess, humanitarian experts, and civil engineers (both the latter engaged in Africa and returning home on leave). It is not only laborers working on building sites and factories who send money back to this country; this may be one of many reasons why dismal predictions of plummeting remittances are not - yet - showing up clearly in Nepal Central Bank statistics.

Back in Lockdown (Curfew)

Returning to Kathmandu after home leave is a strange experience, not least because the city is back into lockdown – or more precisely, a prohibitory order (curfew). Covid-19 cases are increasing, but rather than calling a national lockdown as was the case for some 2.5 months earlier in the year (followed by partial lockdown for another 1.5 months), authority to impose curfew has now been devolved to local governments and district administrative authorities.  It is the administrative authorities of Kathmandu valley in coordination with the local governments that have made the decision, and the near empty streets as I am driven are testimony to its enforcement. Shops are shuttered; only a few vehicles on presumably urgent business (they will have needed a permit) are moving. Our offices are closed, and all our staff are back to working from home as far as possible. Our competencies in project and personnel management by virtual communication have shot up over the past six months.

Rising Covid-19 Cases

Where is this all leading? The local press is full of news of Covid-19 victims; at the latest count of 183, the death toll remains low by comparison with many other countries but is rising quite rapidly. Friends in the village in which I lived many years ago tell me, over the phone, that people there have tested positive. There is fear in their voices; they thought the virus would not reach into rural areas.

The Impact on Livelihoods

Yet despite the tragedy of Covid-19 illness and deaths, it is the impact on livelihoods – especially those of Nepal’s poorest people - that is the most worrying. Nepal’s Central Bank released a report last week indicating that over 22% of jobs in the country have been lost due to Covid-19. Tourism is impossible for the time being, and other sectors are not faring a lot better. Almost certainly opportunities for un-skilled migrant labor will experience a major decline.

If you are a poor person and have no work and no money, what do you do? Fortunately, people here are unlikely to starve. This is in part as some support mechanisms are in place (and family members will generally try to help), but also because there are almost always opportunities to take a loan. This is rarely from banks; although commercial banks are, in principle, supposed to comply the Central Bank’s directive of providing at least 5% of their total loans to the ultra-poor, practice is rarely the same as principle in this regard.  Collectives (often organized around the management of natural resources) or local self-help groups are a more likely source of credit, currently at an interest rate of 12-18% per annum. However, cash in times of need is generally most readily and quickly obtained from private moneylenders. They commonly charge interest at 2 to 3% per month; that is, 24 to 36% per annum. In this country of 30 million citizens, long-term indebtedness amongst those who are least well placed to repay is a major concern, potentially impacting many millions.

What Can Be Done?

As soon as practical interventions are possible, generating opportunities for paid work needs to be a humanitarian and development priority. In this respect, agriculture - in recent years increasingly despised due to the hard and dirty physical labor entailed - has real potential as a source of livelihood if new methods and cropping patterns for commercial production are adopted. For many, returning to the land may be the outcome of this pandemic.