by Mohit Shrestha
The spread of the coronavirus sent shockwaves around the Indian sub-continent as the proposed lockdowns would soon take a toll on the working population of these countries. Nepal has a large population working as daily wage workers and migrant workers. The lockdown meant that there would be a complete halt in their daily incomes which would be used to support their livelihood.
Image credit: The Hindu (https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/coronavirus-nepal-seals-14-mosques-quarantines-33-indians/article31377205.ece)
India and Nepal share a very jovial relationship and that is one of the reasons why a majority of Nepalese nationals go and get themselves employed in India. The free movement across borders without the need of passports and visa, is also one of the reasons. With the lockdown restricting movement across borders, many Nepalese people were left stranded in the border areas.
Similarly, many Nepalese workers go abroad to work in Asian and Middle Eastern countries as migrant workers. It has been seen that a large chunk of Nepal’s economy is maintained by the remittances sent by these workers. As these workers have returned home, there seems to be little they can do to outlive this pandemic with their monetary savings. Many of these migrant workers are said to have tested positive for COVID-19. Nepal migrant problems do not end there. For the numerous migrant workers employed in the capital, Kathmandu, the lockdown has posed unprecedented problems. The beginning of the lockdown saw many workers head back to their village due to a wave of lay-offs and furloughs. The people who stayed back in the hope of an early resumption of work struggled financially to pay for food, rent and hence could not support their family. These difficulties made them take the extreme measure of walking back home on foot because public transportation was shut. With over 29,000 squatter families living in the Kathmandu valley, the pandemic posed more than health-related problems.
With the government announcing a work-from-home system during the lockdown, the daily wage workers were forced to go on unpaid leaves or take pay cuts and hence deprived of their only source of income. Many workers lost their jobs, and this created a great deal of worry amongst the informal workers. The government was also offering a scheme considering the lockdown a public holiday. Surveys found that while 116 employers (52.96 percent) were enrolled under the scheme, only those working for 34 companies (15.52 percent) were registered.
The financial burdens that the lockdown posed for these daily wage workers has had a significant effect on them in terms of mental health. The inability to meet financial ends and support their families has resulted in a steep rise in suicides in Nepal. Data compiled by the Nepalese Police showed that there were around 2,218 suicides during the lockdown, which meant that there were around 20 suicide cases everyday. It has, in fact, been reported that there have been more deaths from suicide than there have been from the pandemic. Many have also died due to their inability to pay for medicines and food and due to scarce availability of drinking water and medical facilities.
The government’s lack of relief aid to vulnerable groups like the daily wage workers adds further salt to the wounds of these groups. Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the situation of migrant workers and daily wage workers and devise a plan which can help them financially and also provide mental fortitude. There is a great need for several government funds, to support the relief work of COVID-19, to be established. At present, the majority of the relief work is being funded by the INGOs and NGOs independently working in Nepal. In these times of great job uncertainty, the Prime Minister’s Employment Programme, established in February, has not been successful in creating enough employment opportunities for these daily wage laborers and hence there is a great uncertainty of how laborers will revive their livelihoods. With fewer PCR and testing kits available and lack of equipment in public hospitals, Nepal looks to be headed towards an even more difficult time to come, especially with the daily wage and migrant workers expected to be at the forefront of this crisis.