All disasters play out in the aftermath of the critical event that has triggered them, and it is rarely possible to state categorically that any disaster aftermath has really come to an end. In most cases, it is merely eclipsed by the events that follow it, as history moves on. Nepal is still recovering from the earthquakes that killed 9,000 people and destroyed over 800,000 domestic dwellings in April and May 2015. While much post-earthquake reconstruction has taken place, much remains to be done, and much that has been done is still contested and problematic (see, for instance, this blog piece by Jeevan Baniya). It is in this ongoing aftermath context that this Himalayan country and its 30 million people must now face the ‘diffuse threat’ (Nilsson et al 2015) of the coronavirus, Covid-19.
For the past three years, I have been leading a GCRF-funded project on the social, political, and cultural impacts of the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. All disasters have political, cultural and social as well as material dimensions and consequences, and some of my own work focused on the ways in which this disaster was framed by the Nepali and international news media, and constructed and represented in Nepali poetry and song. There is of course a key difference between the 2015 earthquake and the looming pandemic: the main quake was over in less than one minute, after which those who had survived were left to pick up the pieces and begin to make sense of them, whereas the pandemic will proceed over weeks and months, and its framing will evolve.
Nepal has been fortunate so far, in that, as of 14 April, only seventeen cases of Covid-19 had been diagnosed, all but one being persons who were infected outside the country. Clearly, this may be the function of a severely limited regime of testing: only 6300 people had been tested for the infection in Nepal by the same date. But the more optimistic cling to the belief that Nepalis have a stronger immune system; or that Nepali social culture, in which hugging, kissing and shaking hands is less pervasive than in Euro-America, is less hospitable to the coronavirus (the latter view comes from this BBC Nepali Service report.)
However, the Nepal government is not so hopeful. International flights to Nepal were suspended on 22 March, Nepal’s borders were closed on the same day, denying entry even to Nepali nationals, and on 24 March the Nepal government imposed a nationwide lockdown – the word lakdaun is now firmly entrenched in the lexicon of the Nepali language. The closure of Nepal’s borders had a particularly negative impact on the hundreds of thousands of Nepalis employed in Gulf states such as Qatar, many of whom have been confined to congested labour camps since national lockdowns were imposed. It also affected the very large number of Nepalis who live and work in the cities of northern India.
The announcement of India’s own lockdown on 24 March, which made it impossible for most migrant workers to continue to work there, was followed almost immediately by the cancellation of all public transport across India. Thus, like so many Indians, Nepali migrant workers had little option other than to set out for their natal villages on foot, only to find their country’s borders closed when they arrived.
So the initial media framing of this pandemic’s impact upon Nepal has focused on the country’s geographical centre—the locked down cities of the capital valley of Kathmandu [see Himal Southasia photo essay]—and on its borders, where hundreds of Nepalis gathered, clamouring to be let in [see Kathmandu Post report]. There are many similarities with the early aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. The threat of Covid-19 has given rise to nationalistic bravado in some quarters, and to fear and suspicion of a threat which emanates from outside. If it hits Nepal hard, the virus, like the earthquake, is likely to lead to a further shift in Nepal’s relationship with its giant neighbours. China, whose influence has grown exponentially in Nepal in the past five years, may well be better placed than India to offer remedies. Restrictions on international labour mobility will also impact very negatively on Nepal’s economy, in which remittances constitute 30% of GDP.
Right now, Nepali journalists, poets and cartoonists are issuing the same warnings they issued five years ago about the likely conduct of their political leaders in the months to come. On 17 April, outrage over the exclusion of migrant workers provoked the writer Buddhisagar Chapain to tweet out the following lines over a photograph of heavily-laden young men walking on a road:
Hidda hiddai khiina bhane
Sochda sochdai padkina bhane
Chali baato jhan jhan lambiena bhane
Ghurmailo sanjh ma pugnechu, tyaha
Jaha – aphnopan nabhaeko simanabhitra pani
Mero aphnai angan cha.
If I am not worn out by my walking,
If I do not explode as I think,
If the road does not trick me and become still longer,
I will reach that place in the dusk of the day
Where even within the border of no selfhood
I have my very own home.
Professor Michael Hutt is Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at SOAS.
For the latest campus updates and vital information regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) for SOAS staff, students and current applicants, please visit https://www.soas.ac.uk/coronavirus/
Nilsson, S., Alvinius, A. and Enander, A. 2016. Frames of Public Reactions in Crisis. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 24(1), 14-26.