“Are you coming from India?”
A local from Syalkhola, the gateway to Chaurjahari, asked me that question when I was on the last leg of my trek to my home village. I had just crossed the Bheri River in Matela, Jajarkot. (This is the same river on whose banks Nabaraj BK and five of his friends were brutally killed before being thrown into the river during an intercaste marriage row some seven months ago.)
From the river, a 10 minute walk along a bumpy, dusty road leads you to Syalkhola’s beautifully constructed stone-paved chautaro. The man and I both arrived at the chautaro at around the same time. At the rest spot, sitting cross-legged, the local again asked me the question he’d asked earlier.
I didn’t reply.
He began studying me, my clothes, and the three bags I was carrying—two on my shoulders and one hanging from my neck. Curious about whether I was returning home from India, he asked me the same question for the third time: please tell me, are you coming from India?
“Yes,” I replied.
I’d replied thus because I wanted to understand his views on India returnee migrant workers.
Along my journey home, I had discovered that the authorities treated India and Gulf returnee migrant workers–who have for years propped up Nepal’s remittance-dependent economy–completely differently than they do general Nepalis returning home. On the earlier leg of my journey, three Gulf returnees traveling on the same bus as me and my daughter, Bihanee, had to submit their personal details at the police station every time we entered a new district, and they had to be ever ready to be tested for fever all along the way. But the authorities didn’t seem to care too much about the passengers returning home from Kathmandu. I found this a little strange, because I knew that the virus had already spread to every corner of Nepal and that the coronavirus numbers were exploding in the Capital city. I could only conclude that the authorities probably thought the deadly virus only got transmitted by Gulf or India returnee migrant workers.
Initially, the man who had asked me the question perhaps did not realize that I was traveling together with a daughter. Because the stretch right before the chautaro was rather steep, Bihanee was trailing me, some distance away; she was walking at her own pace. Seeing a lone figure saddled with bags had probably prompted the man to think that I was a returnee migrant worker.
In the midst of his interrogating me, Bihanee reached the chautaro. Right at that moment, I was also checking my phone’s internet connection. It was working. I saw a few missed calls on WhatsApp. I dialed one of the callers and elaborated for him my journey home from Kathmandu.
By observing me and my daughter and from the snippets of my telephonic conversation he’d overheard, the local man perhaps decided that I was in fact not returning home from India. That was why he didn’t stop me from proceeding with my journey at that juncture. Had I been a migrant returnee–I came to learn of this from others later–he would have called local leaders or the police, and they would have taken me to one of the two quarantine facilities set up by the municipality in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
I was returning to my village, Khahare of Chaurjahari, Rukum (West), after eight months of remaining housebound in my rented room in Kathmandu. I actually hadn’t wanted to travel home for this year’s Dashain. But Bihanee, who’s 10, wanted to meet her relatives, grandparents, and of course her mother and brother. Ever since the nationwide lockdown was enforced in March, she had spent most of her time indoors with me in Kathmandu, while the rest of my family were living a life less constrained by the Covid-19 crisis, in my village. As any parent knows, it’s difficult for kids to remain largely confined for long stretches–months in her case–so at Bihanee’s urging, I’d finally given in and agreed to return to my village with her, despite knowing the dangers of traveling. As I gave in, I told myself she would have a much happier Dashain back home, and that I too needed to rid myself of the ever-increasing psychological burden–brought on by the coronavirus–that the Capital seemed to keep piling on me.
During my week-long stay in my village, I mostly remained in home isolation and abided by all the requisite health protocols. The few times I ventured out, I wore a mask and maintained physical distance as I walked around the village. But the villagers were not doing the same. Indeed, they were well on their way to getting back to the daily rhythms of their pre-corona days. Impressed and charmed by all the activity in the village, my daughter told me she prefered to stay there with the rest of my family. I would have to travel to Kathmandu alone: due to the nature of my job, I absolutely need internet and telephone connectivity. In my village, the phone and internet connections are extremely spotty–often dying out altogether–and these problems forced me back to Kathmandu.
Until a few months ago, people like me living in big cities like Kathmandu used to feel scared to go home to their village, particularly those of us from Nepal’s far-western and mid-western regions. The main reason: tens of thousands of Nepalis were returning home from India after having lost their jobs. Just like Nepal, India too enforced nationwide lockdowns–some of the strictest in the world. Because of this, as many as 3 million Nepali migrant workers in India found themselves in extremely dire straits. They were desperate to save themselves from the disease and from hunger. One-third of all Nepalis living in India were forced to return home along with family members, carrying whatever little belongings they could.
Shortly after they started returning home, several villages in Nepal turned into coronavirus hotspots. But in Nepal’s far west and midwest, most local governments tackled the crisis properly, and the villages in the far-western and mid-western hills now seem like corona-free areas.
Life has already returned to normalcy. Schools, colleges, and markets have reopened. People celebrated Dashain without most of them wearing masks, and with most not too bothered about social distancing. Today, in most villages and towns, municipal vehicles and three-wheeler rickshaws ferry passengers throughout the day. And locals are now preparing to celebrate Tihar with fanfare too.
While Kathmandu seems to be stuck in an interminable corona-induced stasis, in western Nepal, life seems to be back to ticking along. Since locals have already harvested this year’s paddy and maize, they are now busy planting wheat and vegetables. The bubbling life in these villages makes for a stark contrast to the subdued existence in Nepal’s cities, where cases of coronavirus continue to spike dangerously. In fact, cases in city areas are expected to increase further as people’s movement was exceptionally high during Dashain. And winter is approaching fast: scientists believe the virus becomes more active during the winter.
Some of the folks from back home had told me that even police personnel, who were once keeping a watch over health protocols, were walking freely without wearing masks. And that’s exactly what I witnessed during my trip. That said, people do keep a mask in their bag or pocket–in consideration of the crowds they might encounter in banks, hospitals, and government offices (it’s also mandatory to wear a mask in these places). But they rarely wear them while walking to the market, while at home, or when working in the fields. Most villagers I met seem to be extremely confident that they will be able to weather the pandemic. They believe the worst is now over in the villages. And they believe that if they can continue to work in their fields, consume their mostly organic produce, and maintain their immunity by living a healthy lifestyle, they will be fine.
It’s thus not surprising that visitors to such villages often wonder how life there has apparently gotten back on track. But the situation we are seeing now would not have been made possible without the care they took earlier on in the pandemic and the work they put in to ensure that they would be safe. The way the local authorities worked to confront the virus is indeed praiseworthy–especially when one considers how resource-rich cities have been miserably failing to contain the virus and to bring back people’s life to normalcy.
When the virus emerged in their areas, the local leaders were already armed with strategies for containing virus spread, recovering their economy, and normalizing business activities. For example, to get quicker results, Chaurjahari Municipality procured a PCR testing machine on its own. To purchase the machine, local leaders capitalized on the influence wielded by federal parliamentarian Janardan Sharma, invested local resources, and got in touch with health professionals.
The local authorities made sure that all India returnees were quarantined for 21 days. Their swabs were collected immediately, and they were only sent home if they tested negative for the virus. To accommodate all returnees, all the schools were turned into quarantine facilities. Every village in which Covid-19 cases were detected was immediately sealed off. All these measures greatly helped to prevent the spread of the virus in these villages.
Furthermore, the local authorities were also able to resolve problems quickly when they arose. Initially, the local governments of Sano Bheri, Bafikot, Triveni, and Chaurjahari had all agreed to contribute funds for PCR testing. But all except Chaurjahari Municipality backtracked from that commitment. Still, the municipality continued providing free PCR testing–until the federal government last week ordered them to charge fees for the tests.
The municipality also provided free food to more than 2,000 India returnees and took care of them in the quarantines. Those returning home from Nepal’s major cities like Nepalgunj, Kathmandu, Butwal, and Pokhara were made to isolate at home. To ensure they were abiding by the home-quarantine rules, the authorities regularly sent police and health workers on home visits.
The locals too did their part. At one point, some India returnees–desperate to meet their family members–had fled from a quarantine centre at night by breaking down the centre’s doors. But local volunteers hired by the municipality brought them back to the centre.
“We strictly enforced quarantine rules for India returnees, but allowed others to work. This strategy seems to have worked,” Ude Khatri, one of the village chiefs of Chaurjahari Municipality, told me. “We got the situation under our control after two months of strict lockdown, and we gradually lifted restrictions to normalize economic activities.”
The results have been quite impressive. Chaurjahari, a municipality with a population of 27,438, has so far registered one coronavirus-related death (also the one Covid death recorded in Rukum District so far). Since the onset of the pandemic, the municipality has quarantined more than 1,600 people, and it has strictly enforced home quarantines, under the direct supervision of health workers and volunteers. More than 150 India returnees who were infected with the virus were sent home only after they had fully recovered.
“We have handled the corona crisis in a coordinated manner. One person died of his own negligence,” said Khatri. “He probably wouldn’t have died if he had informed us right away that he had corona symptoms.”
The deceased, a bus owner who was infected with the virus while returning home from Dang, took days to reach home, and it was too late to save his life when health workers noticed his ailment. He breathed his last in Nepalgunj, where he was referred for treatment.
According to the District Health Office Rukum (West), 9,616 persons have been tested so far. Of them, 172 tested positive for the virus and 161 have been discharged after a full recovery, whereas 10 Covid patients have been receiving treatment at government hospitals.
Schools, which were once used as quarantine centres, have now reopened. To make up for the classes missed by the students, the municipality has now instructed teachers to run in-person classes all seven days of the week. Life is totally normal.
Some India returnees, for lack of job opportunities in the villages, have already returned to India. But for the rest of the people in the villages of mid-western Nepal, which was once known mostly for the bloody Maoist insurgency, life is pretty peaceful. And cases of coronavirus in the region–which includes Rukum, Rolpa, Janarkot, Salyan, and Pyuthan, among others–are far fewer than in any other part of the country.
“We have gotten to this point because of our hard work,” says Shankar Oli, a health worker entrusted with the responsibility of managing the quarantines. “We handled the situation extremely carefully from day one, and now the disease seems to be under control. I would say we are almost back to normalcy.”