Abha Lal (@AbhaLal2)

Banner image (above). The hospital in Gulariya town, Bardiya, where COVID-19 patients are being treated (source).

Tharus are an Indigenous community of southern Nepal. According to the most recent national census (2011), they make up 6.6% of Nepal’s population. Although linguists recognize several distinct Tharu languages, most of the Tharu community, as well as the Nepali census, consider Tharu a single language.

According to the census, over 1.5 million Nepalis list the Tharu language as their mother tongue. Thus, of the over 123 languages spoken across the country, the Tharu language is considered the fourth most widely spoken, behind Nepali, Maithili and Bhojpuri.

Despite the widespread use of the language, state communication in the Tharu language is sparse. This results from the decades long history of state marginalization of the Tharu community in Nepal. The consequences of this marginalization have been severely felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Public Health Information in Nepal

In April this year, soon after the first few cases of COVID-19 were found in the country, the website Indigenous Voice listed several reasons why Indigenous communities in Nepal, including Tharus, were particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Firstly, many Indigenous people do not own televisions or radios, and have little access to the internet, and therefore, they are less likely to be exposed to public health messaging in the media. Even if they are exposed, many do not speak Nepali, the language in which most COVID-19 information in Nepal is disseminated. Secondly, a significant number of Indigenous people live in areas with few healthcare facilities, so treatment options for people who are infected are limited. And finally, many Indigenous people live in large, joint family households, where social distancing and isolation are next to impossible.

In order to fill the gap left by the state and non-governmental organizations like UNICEF that have focused their efforts on disseminating COVID-19 information in Nepali and English, many from minority communities have made efforts to spread information about the virus in vernacular languages.

Information about COVID-19 safety practices by UNICEF in Nepali (source).

Grassroots Efforts

Local radio stations have been one source of information about the virus for non-Nepali speakers, as have various local organizations with different mandates who have devoted their manpower and resources to spreading safety messages regarding COVID-19.

“The local government hasn’t made much information about COVID-19 available in the Tharu language, but organizations like the Kamaiya Mahila organization and Tharu Sewa centre have been going to people’s houses and telling them about hand washing, social distancing, and sanitation,” Min Adkikari, a radio broadcaster based in Bardiya, a district with a very large Tharu population, told me. “Because both Rajapur and Gulariya [towns in Bardiya] are on the border with India, many people are returning with the virus, so the lack of information and facilities is very risky,” Adhikari added. Despite efforts by grassroots organizations, the absence of robust public health messaging in languages that people understand means that many are not taking preventative health measures seriously.

Bardiya district (source).

Misinformation and Apathy

“If you are wearing a mask, many people think that you have the virus and they avoid you, so lots of people don’t wear masks,” Chappu Ram Chaudhary, a Rajapur native, told me. “Around April-May, there was a lot of fear about the virus, and people were behaving accordingly, but at this point, everybody is sick and tired of staying at home so COVID isn’t really on people’s minds. Schools are still closed, but besides that, from the normality of life here, you couldn’t tell that a pandemic is still going on,” Chaudhary added.

Nepal undertook a nation-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus from 24 March to 21 July, 2020. At the time of writing, cases continue to surge; new reported cases range between 1,000 to 5,000 every day. Despite this, life has gone back to normal in many parts of the country. According to journalist Adhikari, there is a great deal of fatalism with regard to the virus in Bardiya.

“I think the idea is, if you die, you die, life can’t be on hold forever. Most people can’t afford treatment from hospitals anyway, so everything is bhagwan-bharose [up to god], so to speak,” Adkikari said.

A History of Indifference

Fatalism amongst various communities in Nepal is in large part due to the colossal failure of the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, marred with corruption, state negligence and incompetence. But for Tharus in particular, the COVID-19 crisis is part of a longer history of state negligence and indifference when it comes to public health.

Malaria eradication efforts by the government in the 1950s, in addition to government policies that encouraged migration from the hills to the plains where Tharus reside, resulted in the dispossession of many Tharus from their land and their subsequent pauperization in the mid-20th century. At the same time, sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease that is especially prevalent in the Tharu community (and potentially the reason why many Tharus were resistant to malaria and able to live in the deeply-forested areas prior to eradication efforts), has gotten little by way of attention and funding. The ethnic community, therefore, has reason for skepticism when it comes to the government’s commitment to taking care of their health.

Scenes from the streets of Gulariya town, Bardiya (source: Min Adhikari).

A Future in Crisis

The Nepali state’s indifference, and the Tharu fatalism it has produced, will almost certainly continue to have negative impacts in the future. Since the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution in 2015, which many Tharus protested, the relationship between the Indigenous community and the state has been particularly fraught. Trust in the state’s legitimacy is low.

The mishandling of the pandemic has exacerbated this distrust that ethnic and linguistic minorities in Nepal feel towards the state. As the pandemic surges again, state indifference towards Indigenous people, and the mistrust and fatalism it produces, have the potential to feed off each other in a vicious cycle. This could have potentially disastrous results. This is also likely to have important political consequences when the pandemic ends, and debate begins about what sort of ‘normal’ Nepal will return to.