The Olympics of Self-Quarantine

EDITORS NOTE: Back in late May, just as this post was ready to be published, so many things happened, frontlined by the tragic murder of George Floyd and the uprisings against racial injustice that followed. All of my blog posts were delayed in coming weeks, which became months of more surprises, transitions, public reckoning, and adjustment. So for now, thanks for reading along as I catch up on unpublished entries from the intervening time.

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Here we all are nearly two months in to this bizarre reality. The team in Nepal have all been working from home, and we meet daily for a morning and evening call. I join the evening call in Nepal every day at my 7:15am in Connecticut, and getting up each day for our call has been the ordering event of my American quarantine experience, forcing me to maintain a routine that starts early each morning with human connection on the other side of the world.

The number of Covid cases reported in Nepal is still low, but major cities are on complete lockdown, with police in the streets. In Kaskikot and most of our rural working areas, it seems people are going about their daily business – corn planting season has just ended – but transportation and commerce are mostly shut down. There is a worry that Covid cases may only be starting to hit a rise now, as the first deaths have just occurred; but it is hard to know how the lack of testing, reporting and accessibility to hospitals in so much of the country plays in to the accuracy of data on case prevalence.

One particularly interesting discovery is that Nepal seems to have largely based its quarantine strategy on an extremely well-rehearsed protocol for political shut downs. Political strikes have been the main style of public dissent (or social control, depending on your point of view) for the last 25 years in Nepal. When a strike, or “bandh” (“closing”) is instituted, transportation, schools and businesses are closed, people mostly stay home, and if you need to go somewhere, you walk.  Depending on who has called the strike, and the level of power and uncertainty involved, police may patrol the streets to ask what business you are out for and decide whether or not to send you back home.

And for the moment, it seems this is more or less the same strategy that has been enthusiastically deployed for Covid prevention.

On the plus side, Nepali people are pretty used to the bandh-style quarantine. Back when I first started visiting Nepal in the early 2000’s during the civil war, bhandhs were imposed almost weekly by either the Maoists or the government. After the overthrow of the Monarchy in 2006, a notable effect was a bandh-free-for-all whereby any sub group with a pending discontent of any kind would call for a strike: drivers striked to protest fuel prices, teachers striked to protest salaries. In 2012, a series of strikes broke out across the country when the Parliament was trying to move to a federalist political system, and ethnic groups as small as 150 people called for closings to demand representation in a new state constitution. One sub-group would strike one day and everything would be closed, and the next day, everything would stay closed but now on behalf of the responding strike by another sub-group. And because bhandhs are shut downs (not simply a refusal to work), these protests were widely understood to mean that the entire public was to stay home.  So everybody would just stay in their houses or go for short walks until everyone with something to say was done striking.

With some exceptions, that is—such as the Gurung strike in Pokhara during the 2012 series, which involved both policed closures and exuberant Gurung dancing and singing at the empty traffic intersection in Mahendrapul. Which was followed later in the week by a Brahamin strike and corresponding displays of cultural force.

All of which is to say, in Nepal coronavirus has met the Olympic World Champions of self-quarantine. However I’d like to also report that for the sake of the global pandemic, a few fantastic additions have been made. Topping the charts, we have these people-catcher-thingies on long poles. Really. See for yourself. This terrific solution ensures police don’t have to potentially touch covid-y pedestrians who are found to be walking without cause or ID, and I am so glad it has had occasion to be invented and put on the internet.

As to our daily team meetings: in the odd dream of a halted, people-catcher filled world, with all primary health care either paused or redirected to coronavirus response, the tinny voices of my colleagues over Viber each morning has helped to maintain a sense of movement while most of our work and so much of the world stands still. We’ve challenged each other to home exercise goals and used our office messaging system to share videos of our respective jump roping efforts (Rajendra impressively did his with a traditional namlo rope used to carry baskets). We employed our dental technicians to make personal phone calls to all the patients in their registers to go over Covid-prevention guidelines. We began a home-made mask campaign.

We have also, finally, taken this time to launch our youtube channel. There is a huge variety of content here: tours of our clinics, cute kids doing school brushing programs, samples of community outreach parent discussions and child-friendly dental care in schools, some words from a village chairman about our project, and my personal favorite: the annual Oral Health Bhailo competition, where schools record traditional bhailo songs on the to topic of oral health during the festival of Tihar (seriously, these are devastatingly adorable). These videos really bring the people and places we work with to life and we’d love you to click around and visit us at home in Nepal! (And better yet, please subscribe to our channel!)

After all, we’re gonna be in this for a while. It’s a great time to connect.

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