Opinion: How will COVID-19 impact Nepal’s earthquake-reconstruction efforts?

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Houses are constructed with the support of the EU and UNDP in 2018 in Nepal. Photo by: European Union / EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / CC BY-NC-ND

On March 20, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake was recorded in the remote Himalayan region, close to the Nepal-Tibet border. While there were no casualties or damage reported, the tremors were felt as far as in Kathmandu, with up to 8,000 people experiencing moderate shaking.

Women at center of post-earthquake nutrition efforts in Nepal

Nepal's 2015 earthquake made safe shelter a priority over nutrition and set the country on a path toward overreliance on packaged food. Now, women play a key role in improving their families' health and well-being.

This prompts the question: What happens when a disaster strikes in the midst of a pandemic? A more severe earthquake during the current lockdown could lead to a dramatic meltdown of a society that is still picking up the broken pieces following the 2015 earthquake.

Years after that disaster, which killed over 9,000 people, left 22,000 injured, and destroyed over 700,000 homes, an estimated 100,000 or more people were living in emergency makeshift accommodation. As we enter the sixth year following the disaster, economic and social costs are still being counted and rebuilding efforts are still ongoing. And now, COVID-19 has presented new challenges.

Reconstruction efforts grind to a halt

No one was under any illusion that the post-earthquake reconstruction would not be a long, hard road to recovery. However, the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly brought a grinding halt to the progress made in repairing lives and reshaping towns and cities, affecting people’s lives in fundamental ways.

Restoration work that was already going painfully slow has now been suspended. Many structures — including seven World Heritage sites — now remain in various states of disrepair. Scaffoldings stand as mute spectators of the deserted streets and squares. Construction workers and artisans are out of work and possibly out of income, as the lockdown forces everyone to stay home.

The Gaddi Baithak palace in Kathmandu Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in 2016 in Nepal. Photo by: Sujeet Sharma.

Undoubtedly, the economic impact of the coronavirus will certainly be hardest on the country still dealing with the effects of a large disaster. Nepal’s remittance-dependent economy has been badly affected as the spread of the pandemic forced the government to suspend issuance of work permits for 14 countries.

The rapid return to normalcy seen in the tourism sector over the past two years, which saw a record 371 Everest expeditions permitted by the government, has now come to a standstill as the mountain is closed to the outside world — the second time in the last five years. The government’s Visit Nepal 2020 tourism campaign has also been suspended amid the outbreak. An Asian Development Bank report estimates that COVID-19, in the worst case, could shave off up to 0.13% from the country’s economy, a significant drop from the 4.5 percentage point gain achieved through post-disaster reconstruction.

The country has sought additional funding — in the range of $570 million to $860 million— from international donors for the current and upcoming fiscal years to cover increased health care costs. But as countries around the world attempt to deal with the virus within their own borders, external aid may not be forthcoming.

While the economic impact certainly pales in comparison to the other effects of COVID-19 — in terms of death and destruction worldwide — the fear is that the impact will seriously undo some of the achievements seen over the past few years.

Learning from experience and history

Over the last 100 years, disasters, conflicts, and pandemics have run in succession. A major earthquake in 1934 in Nepal was followed by the beginning of World War II and a new world order. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 possibly disrupted the post-World War I reconstruction.

However, many of these disruptions were localized then. This time around, the world is more integrated. As with the labor and capital, pain and sufferings travel ever so quickly from one geography to another.

There are several lessons to be learned to chart a way forward.

First, a disaster differs from a pandemic in duration and the severity of shocks — one is more localized, while the other has more widespread and systemic impacts. But both offer complex challenges that require multilevel solutions.

Community resilience is perhaps the only answer to respond to complex challenges of multiple disasters.

At the international level, Nepal's economic pressures have been recognized by the World Bank, which recently approved a fast-tracked $29 million COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project for Nepal. This will be critical for COVID-19 preparedness, but the government must also commit to injecting serious money into the economy to plug the gaps.

Secondly, a number of donors — such as the European Union — have redirected their aid packages from ongoing programs to the immediate challenge presented by COVID-19. The impact of such actions needs to be studied. The media spotlight has been on the remittance loss — and rightly so. However, there is still a sizable Nepalese diaspora in European countries and the U.S., which can play a significant role in this time of crisis through remittances.

Thirdly, at the national level, it is important for the government to pursue a coordinated response and address any gaps by bringing various ministries to work together — especially since a number of them have been reorganized recently. The government should also look to adopt expansionary fiscal policies combined with monetary stimulus to keep credit flowing in the economy, according to Hans Timmer, World Bank chief economist for the South Asia region.

Likewise, while tourists may not be coming just yet, this is an opportunity to explore opportunities in the sector domestically, such as attracting visitors from adjoining parts of China and India.

Last is the local approach: Once the lockdown is eased, the Nepal Reconstruction Authority — the body set up to spearhead post-earthquake reconstruction — should explore opportunities to engage migrant workers. Training opportunities should be designed to engage the migrants in construction.

Taking the domestic agenda forward, local governments should help their communities boost latent skills, techniques, and craftwork. Handicrafts constituted up to half of total exports during peak years but have been falling steadily. Hundreds of traditional skills in Nepal have disappeared as a result of the country being blinded by the mainstream economy. In this crisis, the handicraft sector should therefore consolidate numerous disparate industries to increase productivity and manpower to regain the lost glory of Nepali artists and artisans.

These are measures to ensure that the community remains resilient and the country is prepared for any imminent disaster. After all, community resilience is perhaps the only answer to respond to complex challenges of multiple disasters.

According to Frank M. Snowden, author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” health crises hold up a mirror to humanity to show who we really are. The 2015 earthquake and COVID-19 are bound to carry a message for the country and for the world, and the pandemic ought to provide us with lessons to prepare for anything else that might follow.

For countries such as Nepal, with its high risk of seismic activity, this message carries even more significance. This is perhaps time for Nepal to reduce external reliance and build resilience from within — not just on paper, but in action, too.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Urmi Sengupta

    Urmi Sengupta is a senior lecturer in spatial planning who is affiliated with Queen’s University Belfast. She has extensively researched and published about architectural, urban, and housing issues for cities in the global south, with a focus on Asia. She sits on the editorial boards of various academic journals and received her Ph.D. from Newcastle University.
  • Sujeet Sharma

    Sujeet Sharma is an urban development specialist based in the U.K. Trained as an architect at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, he has worked for a number of practices, both in the U.K. and overseas, and researched extensively on urban issues in cities of the global south. He also advises various NGOs in India and Nepal.