For Nepali migrant workers abroad, no hearth and no home

    As Covid-19 began to spread and occupancy fell in the hotel that he was working at, Laxman Lamichhane decided that he would come home. Lamichhane was planning to fly back from the United Arab Emirates on April 10, the day his vacation days began, but when the Nepal government’s increasing restrictions on travel, he was forced to change his plans.

    Last Wednesday, the Nepal government-imposed travel restrictions as a measure to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country. As per the government ban, all passengers, including Nepalis, from the European Union, the United Kingdom, West Asia, Gulf countries and countries like Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, were restricted from March 20 until April 15. The travel restriction was also applicable for all passengers transiting in these locations.

    “Most tourist destinations in the UAE are closed and there is not much work in the hospitality industry,” said Lamichhane. “My vacation was starting on April 10 but as there was a travel restriction in place, I had to change my plans.”

    A last-minute change meant he had to pay double the airfare. According to Lamichhane, he paid 2,061 dirham, roughly Rs 67,000, for a one-way ticket. The same ticket would cost him between 1,000 to 1,200 dirham (Rs32,600-Rs39,000) on normal days.

    Lamichhane landed at Tribhuvan International Airport on Thursday evening, hours before the travel restriction came into place. But there are thousands of others like him, who remain in foreign lands, unemployed and unable to come back home.

    All the major labour destinations for Nepali migrant workers, like Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and South Korea, have been gripped by Covid-19. The UAE alone has at least 14o confirmed cases with two deaths.

    Migrant workers in these countries are simultaneously dealing with fears of infection, job losses and uncertainty regarding whether they will be able to return home anytime soon.

    On Friday evening, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli extended the travel restriction to encompass all flights, including those from China, Bhutan, Thailand and Singapore, which were exempted from the initial decision, until March 31, with a possibility of extension. This has effectively closed all avenues of return for migrants.

    “A large number of migrant workers across all the labour destination countries have been affected by the travel restrictions,” said Yubaraj Nepal, director of the Centre for Migration and International Relations, a non-governmental organisation working for migrant welfare.

    “Many visas have expired while others with flight tickets were unable to fly. They are living in uncertainty about their status once restrictions are lifted.” Four of Lamichhane’s colleagues had similar plans of coming home because of the Covid-19 crisis. While Lamichhane returned, the others are still in Dubai, waiting for restrictions to be lifted. “I had also thought of returning home as cities are under lockdown and hotels have turned empty,” said Prakash Bhandari, a chef at a five-star hotel in Dubai.

    “With restrictions on both sides, the UAE government will not allow us to leave and the Nepal government will not let us enter. I cannot even travel via a transit country like India.” After announcing the travel restrictions, the government had asked all Nepalis abroad to get in touch with Nepali embassies and consulates for clarity on how to proceed. But a large number of Nepali workers have been taking to social media to reach out to Nepali missions abroad with complaints.

    “My visa will expire on March 28. At present, I cannot travel to Nepal. But will I be an illegal migrant worker after my visa expiry? I was thinking of going home on March 27,” Prakash KC wrote on the Nepali Embassy in Malaysia’s Facebook Page.

    Although the government’s move is aimed at preventing the Covid-19 pandemic from overwhelming Nepal, imposing such harsh restrictions in a such short span of time has left Nepali migrants with few means of recourse. “Remaining in foreign lands will only add to their expenses, especially as many might have sent back remittance and could be empty-handed,” said Nepal. “Most importantly, their right to mobility has been curtailed, although the restriction measure was imposed for safety reasons. Now, they cannot return to their own country and their right to return to their homeland has been violated.”

    According to Nepal, their home country has treated its own citizens as outsiders while host countries do not care much about migrant workers. Qatar deported hundreds of Nepali workers just last week.

    Meanwhile, migrant workers like Bhandari have been waiting for the situation to normalise so that they can return home.“In such a crisis or even during normal circumstances, we definitely want to go home and spend time with our families,” said Bhandari. “But the whole world is going through a crisis and we don’t know when we can return home. It’s all uncertain.”

    Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak

    UPDATED as of March 24, 2020

    What is Covid-19?
    Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. 

    How contagious is Covid-19?
    Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.

    Where did the virus come from?
    The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.   

    What is the current status of Covid-19?

    The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. As of Tuesday, Covid-19 had spread to 196 countries and infected more than 383,011 people with 16,585 deaths. In South Asia, Pakistan has reported the highest number of infections at 892, with six deaths. Nepal has so far reported two cases, in which one patient recovered.

    How dangerous is the disease?

    The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk. 

    How do I keep myself safe?
    The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.

    Is it time to panic?

    No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.