With Krishna Lal Karna and Hari Gurung
Lying alongside India, Nepal’s province 2 has been considered at high risk for Covid-19 given the porous nature of the border and difficulty in controlling movements of people, the high density of the population, and the generally weak level of health and hygiene practices. From the outset of lockdown, all local governments – in coordination with the provincial government - have been working to raise public awareness on preventative measures, manage quarantine facilities for migrants returning from India, mobilize health workers, and establish health desks at ward level. This has not been an easy task. Prior to lockdown, none of the municipalities had a proper contingency plan for dealing with such a situation, so they were faced with “learning by doing”. This included contacting any organizations working in the province for advice and support.
Helvetas is active in province 2 with a variety of projects, but movement of our staff and vehicles is halted during lockdown. Nevertheless, staff have remained in close telephonic contact with the mayors, deputy mayors and service providers in our partner municipalities. In this blog, we document two responses that we were able to make through “virtual organizing”.
Requests from local government for health equipment
The over-riding request coming from municipalities at the onset of the lockdown was for health-related materials such as hand sanitizer, N95 face masks and thermometers or thermo-guns for health workers, and cotton fabric face masks for the general public. In addition, they sought support for the distribution of food and WASH materials for daily wage laborers and other poor households, and the establishment of quarantine facilities.
Given the immediate need for health materials, this was the priority. One of our projects, Elam, works to support small enterprise development and has an extensive network of contacts amongst businesses, small scale producers, vendors and the local media. As a result, it was possible to source, purchase and deliver the items most demanded by the municipalities much more quickly than they could obtain them through other sources. Cotton fabric face masks were manufactured by local entrepreneurs (see also this blog); to ensure than the manufacturing instructions were understood, a short video was produced and shared by smart phone. Prevention messages explaining why hand washing, social distancing and mask wearing are important were quickly produced in the local language and aired on community FM radio. Although the amount of support provided was not huge in terms of funding, it was significant in terms of the good will created – as demonstrated by the comments of the two mayors, below.
Mayor, Devanand Mahato, Barhathwa Municipality (April 16, 2020)
Mayor, Hariwon Municipality, Sarlahi (April 17, 2020)
Melons to markets
Another of our projects in province 2 supports riverbed farming – a system under which landless or land-poor households gain access to riverbed plots for cultivation during the dry season. Usually they produce watermelons and cucumbers but also other vegetables; some are for home consumption, but most are destined for sale. With April – May being peak production time, the farmers risked much of their produce rotting where it grew due to the disruption of regular transportation during lockdown. Although in theory the transportation of agricultural produce is allowed, in practice it has not been easy for farmers to arrange (see also the description of agriculture ambulances in this blog).
The riverbed farmers are in three municipalities: Chireswornath (Dhanusha); Bharatpur Gaushala (Mohotari) and Rajdevi (Rautaht). Our staff organized a virtual meeting between Local Resource Persons (lead farmers), staff of the partner agriculture cooperative, and the focal person of Chireswornath municipality. Following this, Chireswornath municipality agreed to liaise with the local administration and the provincial government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. The Ministry duly granted permission for the transportation of the riverbed farmer’s products – issuing vehicle passes. The riverbed melons and other vegetables are now being sold at morning markets as well as army and police camps and health posts. To minimize any risk of Covid-19 infection during the collection and marketing activities, Helvetas has supplied all those concerned with sanitizers and cotton fabric face masks, along with careful briefing on behavioral aspects such as social distancing. Altogether, some 450 riverbed farming households have benefited from this marketing support.
Helvetas has been active in other humanitarian responses in province 2 (especially related to storms and flooding) but working during lockdown is a new experience for all of us. Although perhaps obvious, the following two points are worth stressing.
Proper planning, quick decisions and communication
Prior to lockdown, scenario planning at country level had set the framework for what came next. During lockdown, a smart phone is an indispensable tool - allowing rapid sharing of information at different levels for quick updates and decisions. Where necessary, follow up texts or emails have ensured clarity on roles and responsibilities. Depending on user familiarity, we use a wide variety of tools and information sharing groups (Viber, Skype, WhatsApp and similar).
Keeping in touch, maintaining project networks
Our staff have devoted much time to keeping in contact with all our partners: elected municipal representatives and municipal administrators, service providers, farmers, entrepreneurs, corporate partners and vendors. Knowing their situation, and having personal rapport, allowed us to plan need-based interventions rapidly and effectively - in solidarity with municipalities.