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In a move that not only violates its own social-distancing rules but also poses the risk of further spreading Covid-19, the Oli government has decided to allow public vehicles to operate at full capacity on both short- and long-haul routes.  

Monday’s decision, taken during a cabinet meeting, aims to ease the shortage of public transport during the upcoming festival season, which usually sees mass mobility of people. 

The decision is not sitting well with public health experts. “Air circulation will be more restricted inside a full bus,” says Dr Lhamu Sherpa. “That means the chances of people getting infected by others in a packed bus is much higher than in an emptier one. Thus more people could end up carrying an infection home to their elderly parents or grandparents or sick family members, putting them at risk of contracting Covid.”

Just going by test reports will not help stop such spread, either, according to Dr Sherpa. “If we check for a PCR test report before allowing people to ride a bus and if all the windows are open, then the chances of passengers getting infected are probably lower,” she says. “However, there are still chances of infection, especially in a fully packed bus, given that we don’t know at what stage the people were tested. Early-day tests are usually negative.”

Experts are all too familiar with travelers getting infected in transit. Just recently, five passengers traveling from Nepal to Hong Kong tested positive for Covid-19. Before boarding the flight, they had presented a negative PCR report.  Hong Kong subsequently suspended all Nepal Airline flights

And a study in China published last month found that the coronavirus was “a highly transmissible pathogen in closed environments with air recirculation.”

But the government’s decision to allow vehicles to run at full capacity undoubtedly comes as a huge relief for public transport operators, who have been struggling to survive the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier, the government had made it mandatory for public vehicles to keep at least 50 percent of their seats vacant. Although they were allowed to charge double the regular fare from passengers, operators had been complaining about a drop in the number of passengers resulting from the increased fare. The operators will now have to charge the usual fare, according to Online Khabar.     

The decision, however, marks a U-turn in the government’s social-distancing rules and plans to curb public movement during the festival season.   

Experts have warned that such a reckless move could accelerate the mass spread of coronavirus at a time when hospitals are being overrun by Covid-19 patients.

And the decision comes at a time when the government has decided to turn all hospitals into Covid-19 hospitals–because the number of active Covid-19 cases has crossed 25,000. Just hours before the cabinet decision, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Population, Jageshwor Gautam, had said that those traveling during Dashain and Tihar would have to stay in a 7-day self-quarantine upon arriving at their destination.   

“This year is not like normal years, when we used to celebrate and carry on with business as usual. This year, people should celebrate the festival wherever they are. Let’s not infect others by adding to crowd numbers on the pretext of engaging in festival-related shopping, business, and travel. Let’s discourage such activities,” said Dr Gautam, as he read out the decision taken by the Incident Command System (ICS) meeting on Monday

As per the ICS decision, local bodies are requested to create a plan to action, in coordination with local clubs, to keep away the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions from other people. The ministry has also decided to mobilize local teams to keep a tab on people in home quarantines and isolation, as well as people who come in contact with them 

“If you are planning to travel, you have to stay in quarantine for seven days. You can travel only if you do not show any signs of Covid-19 infection after a week, or else you will have to postpone your travel. It is mandatory for all to stay in home quarantine for a week once you reach your destination,” Dr Gautam said. 

Experts and the general public have decried the decision, saying that it could further reduce the country’s chances of returning to normalcy. 

The decision, although unexpected, is hardly surprising.  Six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepalis are gradually coming to realize that the Oli government’s handling of the crisis has become a bigger threat to public health than the coronavirus. Since Nepal confirmed its first coronavirus case in a China-returnee, in January, nearly all the decisions made by the Oli government have been marked by lack of empathy and total disregard for the wellbeing of Nepalis. For Nepal, the costs of these decisions have been far greater than that of the coronavirus. 

In the beginning, the government wasted precious months vacillating on the purchase of test kits, when it still had time to conduct mass tests in the major hotspots. The government then stopped returnee migrants for weeks at the Nepal-India border, a move that allowed the virus to spread rapidly and forced people to sneak into their own country, further increasing the risk to their family and friends

The Oli government then remained a silent spectator as desperate internal migrants left Kathmandu Valley in droves to avoid hunger and joblessness, which resulted from a crippling lockdown.  Those stuck in Kathmandu continued to venture out to find food aid because the government had failed to introduce any economic measure to assist families and businesses devastated by the lockdown.

Because of these mistakes and countless others, Nepal, which had just one active case before the start of the four-month-long crippling lockdown in March, continues to see daily spikes in cases loads, and the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has surpassed the five-figure mark.  

The unchecked spread of the virus has resulted in an acute shortage of beds and ventilators and overstretched ICUs in hospitals across the country, according to the Forum for Protection of Consumers’ Rights.  Overwhelmed by the crisis facing the hospitals, the health ministry has been appealing to the public to not go to hospital unless they have severe symptoms. 

Now that the pandemic is spiraling beyond its control, the government has also backtracked from its earlier promise of providing free Covid-19 tests and treatment, leaving poor people in one of the poorest countries in the world even more vulnerable to the virus.