Covid-19 has rapidly spread around the world impacting economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges that it poses are real and consequential. To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on Asia’s social sector, CAPS (virtually) sat down with our partners across the region to understand the challenges they are grappling with, the strategies they are employing to contain the fallout and their take on the future of the social sector.
To discuss the impact in Nepal, we spoke with Merina Ranjit, Deputy General Manager of the Chaudhary Foundation on 7 April 2020 followed by an update on 10 October 2020. The Chaudhary Foundation was established in 1995 and is the social initiative arm of the Chaudhary Group, one of Nepal’s most prominent multinational conglomerates. The Foundation focuses on activities aimed at improving the lives of the Nepalese people, strengthening communities, and sustainably developing the country.
CAPS: Thank you for speaking with us today, Merina. The Chaudhary Foundation has been involved in previous disaster and response management initiatives in Nepal, most notably in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. How has the Foundation been supporting efforts in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak? Has this impacted the work that you are already engaged in?
Merina: When Covid-19 first hit Nepal, hospitals in the country were not equipped to handle this crisis. To address this gap, the Chaudhary Foundation aided in identifying and sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and RT PCR testing kits from China to be donated to the government.
Our Covid response initiatives, however, have not affected our existing projects and grantees. It was decided at the onset of the outbreak that existing funding would not be reallocated. Instead, a separate fund was created to support Covid-19 response activities. We continue to be committed to all our projects and grantees.
CAPS: This is inspiring to hear. How has the government responded to the pandemic?
Merina: The government has limited resources but has been stepping up to raise awareness. Nepal recently transitioned to a federalist system and we are seeing provinces and local government entities empowered and stepping up during this time. The national lockdown announced on 24 March 2020 was a timely and effective strategy by the government to limit the spread of the virus.
One of the things that has really improved over the past few months is testing. Initially, testing was only available in Kathmandu but now there are testing labs all over the country. The government is also in discussion with various parties about the sourcing and distribution of vaccines.
CAPS: Have private companies also stepped up?
Merina: Many private companies, especially those operating in trading and tourism, have been heavily affected. Apart from a few companies donating money, food, and PPE most are not able to do much. And as companies’ profits are declining so is CSR, which is mandated at 1% of profit.
CAPS: How has the social sector responded?
Merina: We have seen in Nepal that INGOs and NGOs have been unable to respond immediately due to funding constraints and operational red tape. Instead, there has been an increase in relief efforts and initiatives by grassroots and community-based organizations (CBOs). This includes many local organizations distributing free food to the base of the pyramid. The lockdown has disproportionately impacted this segment of society, most of whom are daily wage workers.
In addition, we have seen volunteer groups and CBOs mobilize in semi-urban and rural parts of the country to conduct awareness-raising activities. Nepal is a remittance-based economy and these regions are comprised largely of citizens who work in India and Qatar and who have returned home as a result of the pandemic. Volunteer groups are encouraging these returnees to quarantine at home to limit the spread of the virus.
CAPS: What do you think a post-Covid Nepal will look like?
Merina: We all wonder about this. Unfortunately, I am getting more and more pessimistic. In 2019, Nepal was making progress on many social indicators but as a result of the lack of funding for the social sector and a tanking economy we are backtracking on many issues. For example, the maternal and neonatal mortality health had declined significantly. However, they are increasing again as fear of Covid is keeping expecting mothers away from hospitals. Another big issue area is education. Most children in Nepal have not received any education for months as public schools, which have been closed since April, do not offer online learning.
While it is too soon to tell what the implications will be in the long run, these undertakings make a strong case for further empowering local organizations that have proven to be key partners in times of crisis. It is our hope that the contribution of the social sector continues to be recognized in Nepal.