From 1996 to 2006, Nepal was engulfed in a civil war. In April 2015, the country was ravaged by a massive magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which was followed 17 days later by a 7.3 aftershock. With one third of the population affected, thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. Schools, health centers, roads, water and power systems were destroyed. Poverty deepened in a country which was already one of the poorest in the world. In 2010, 25.5 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. The combination of these natural disasters and the long civil war have hampered poverty alleviation efforts and economic development. For ten years, Aythos has worked to address poverty and development in rural areas in Nepal by providing emergency relief to villages after the earthquake and conducting programs to improve health and livelihoods.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic that began at the end of 2019 presents another major challenge to the people of Nepal and the country’s development. Though COVID cases remained low for months, by the end of May they had exploded, rising from 57 on May 1st, to 1401 on May 31st. Cases continued to rise exponentially throughout the summer, reaching 20,750 on August 3rd, 2020. Due to COVID-19 and the government’s lockdown, organizations such as Aythos have faced obstacles in conducting our work. Though our staff have been unable to visit our beneficiary communities, they have maintained communication with the villagers through calls, and successfully distributed food relief packages in Baasbotey to help those affected by COVID-19.
Throughout March, the government of Nepal instituted restrictions on travel to and within the country, shutting down its borders with India and China on March 22nd and then instituting a nationwide lockdown on March 24th, which remained in effect until July 21st. Only two weeks later, the government is considering reinstating it due to the continued rise in cases. Though the lockdowns are meant to protect lives by inhibiting the spread of COVID-19, they have also had adverse effects on a country already struggling with poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, and inadequate access to clean water and sanitation.
The pandemic and lockdowns have caused job loss, worsened food insecurity, and threaten to exacerbate poverty. People in rural villages, the discriminated Dalit caste and migrant workers and their families have been particularly impacted. Because of a lack of job opportunities in Nepal, many work abroad in order to send money, known as remittances, back to their families to support them. These remittances make up nearly 28 percent of Nepal’s economy. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many migrant workers have been forced to return home and have lost their incomes. Now home, these families have more mouths to feed, but less income to do so. This is worsened by the substantial increase in food prices in recent months. Even for those who can still afford food, markets have been difficult to access because of travel restrictions, and there is little available at them.
The lockdown has also negatively impacted health access in Nepal. Health infrastructure is poor, with limited access to health care for many Nepali, especially those in rural villages. Our beneficiaries in Baasbotey, Okhaldunga, have to walk 1-1.5 hours to reach the nearest health facility, which offers only basic medical care and advice. There are no doctors or nurses, only a health assistant and midwife, only a few beds, and only basic medications. For some of our villagers in Helambu it takes between 1.5 and 3 hours to reach a health facility. More advanced care is available in larger towns and in Kathmandu, but these are even longer trips, and without public transportation, villagers are unable reach these.
To further understand the needs of the communities we work in, I and the two other Aythos interns have developed three needs assessment surveys. Our Nepali staff will be interviewing a local government official, several village members, and a health worker volunteer in Baasbotey and Helambu to understand how they have been impacted by COVID-19 and in what ways Aythos can best support them. This assessment will guide future Aythos programs and we are greatly looking forward to the results!