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Reflections on the corona pandemic by LUMES student Hanna Geschewski

street in nepal during the corona pandemic
Street scene in Kathmandu on the first day of lock-down of the city. Photo: Hanna Geschewski.

LUMES student, Hanna Geschewski, has just come back to Sweden after she was temporarily stranded in Nepal during fieldwork for her thesis. In this interview, she reflects on the impact of the corona outbreak on her own studies, and on the society in Nepal, where the socio-economic consequences of global and national measures to slow its spread have hit many people hard.

How is your daily life impacted by the outbreak?

I recently returned to Sweden after being temporarily stranded in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. For most of my stay, the coronavirus pandemic felt far away. Although Nepal shares a common border with heavily affected China, there was only one reported case until late March. Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai even went so far as to declare Nepal a "coronavirus-free zone" in the hope of maintaining the inflow of tourists.

But as the number of cases in neighbouring India continued to rise and the call for stricter preventive measures grew louder, the Nepalese government announced, more or less overnight, a national curfew, the lockdown of all non-essential businesses and the suspension of all domestic and international flights. The last flights before the shutdown were hopelessly overbooked, so that I became familiar with the idea of staying in Kathmandu for the (un)foreseeable future. I was lucky to stay at a beautiful house with a vegetable garden and a roof terrace, which made the days of lockdown quite pleasant. I spent most of my time cooking (definitely stepped up my game in Nepali cuisine), transcribing my field research interviews and pressing the refresh button on news websites from Germany and Sweden.

When it became apparent that the shutdown would probably be extended until mid-April, many foreign missions began to organize rescue flights for their citizens. On 27 March I left Kathmandu in a plane chartered by the German government along with 300 other ‘stranded’ travellers.

What does it mean for your LUMES work?

Fortunately, I had returned from the village where I had done most of my field work a few weeks before the national lockdown. News about the spread of the coronavirus in other parts of the world had also reached Tangiya Basti, the 8000-member village where I had spent almost three weeks, but the pandemic seemed far away, and people were not particularly worried at that time. "It's too warm here anyway, the virus will die," and "We Nepalis have a very strong immune system" - with half joking, half serious claims like these, most of the corona talks in the local tea shop fizzled out.

Even back in Kathmandu I managed to carry out all my planned interviews, mainly with experts. I met the last person on my list only a few days before the start of the shutdown, when the city was already noticeably quieter.
I did not read and write as much as I had planned, though, because it was not easy to concentrate in the midst of constantly checking the news and looking for ways to return to Sweden.

What are the impacts in Nepal?

While Nepal is not (yet) hard hit by the pandemic itself, with only 9 reported cases and zero deaths to date, the socio-economic consequences of global and national measures to slow its spread have hit many people hard. Particularly in urban areas such as Kathmandu, people from the lower classes and castes are often dependent on daily wages and without a regular income do not have the means to feed their families, pay rent and school fees. Often crammed into small apartments, social distancing and staying at home is not a viable option for them. To save them from starvation, many community initiatives have been set up to distribute rice, lentils and other essential goods, while the government is taking more time to channel aid. 

Another tragedy is unfolding along the Indo-Nepali borders, where thousands of Nepalese migrant workers returning from India have been denied entry back into the country because the borders have been temporarily closed. Similarly, Nepalese workers in the Gulf States, Malaysia and other countries were not allowed to return home. Stuck abroad, they are no longer able to send money to their families in Nepal after many have been laid off and put on unpaid leave. This is a major problem for Nepal, where remittances account for 25% of the national GDP.

What are your reflections on being a student of sustainability studies in times of corona?

These exceptional circumstances and their massive scale have once again made me aware of the importance of approaching problems from different angles and acknowledging their complexity, something that LUMES has taught me every day.

There are no simple solutions to complex problems. If you call for an extended shutdown, you must also consider that it can be potentially dangerous for certain people, such as partners who live in abusive relationships. If you are excited about reduced pollution and lower greenhouse gas levels, you must not forget that low-income factory workers have been laid off. If you claim that ‘humans are the virus and the earth is healing’, you fall victim to eco-fascist narratives and forget that environmental destruction is not committed by humanity as a whole.
These are complex times, and there is so much we still need to understand.