Indigenous Chepang Communities Facing Humanitarian Crisis in the Face of COVID-19

By Biswash Chepang, Program Coordinator, MBA Nonprofit | Agribusiness

The Chepang communities with a population of about 68,000, who live in Chitwan, Makawanpur, Dhading and Gorkha districts are one the most marginalized indigenous communities in Nepal. They are also some of the hardest hit by COVID-19 pandemic. The Chepang communities have one of the highest illiteracy rates, lowest access to basic public services such as drinking water, electricity, education and health care. As the subsistence agriculture which most of them depend on do not produce sufficient food to last for a year, most of them survive with additional income as daily wage earners. Based on first-hand information from Chepang villages, this story is about the high risk of COVID-19 spread and implications of lockdown in Chepang communities and measures to address their plights.
While the Nepali government is playing a significant role to prevent and control the transmission of COVID-19, the associated impact on the vulnerable communities such as Chepang are out of the government radar. Nor has there been media coverage to highlight the plight of such vulnerable indigenous communities in Nepal. On the contrary, there are stories of media coverage of how COVID-19 has hit indigenous communities devastatingly in other nations and what measures are being taken. For example, several steps have already been taken to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in Aboriginals in Australia, Inuits in Canada and indigenous communities across North America. The imposition of lockdown and isolation has unique ramifications on vulnerable indigenous communities in Nepal owing to their characteristic socio-economic and cultural settings. Vulnerable indigenous communities in Nepal cannot be left out and their plight needs to be addressed if we are to prevent the spread of this contagious disease.
Some of the simple measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission are to wash hands with soap and water and follow personal hygiene, maintain social distancing and stay away from crowds. These simple measures are not so simple for Indigenous Chepang community to follow. Why? Because Chepang communities have limited access to water supply, are unaware of personal hygiene, and have poor sanitation. Most of them (with an average family of 6 to7) live in one room hut making social distance impossible which make them vulnerable and risk-prone to contamination from COVID-19. Besides, they are facing an emergency crisis situation due to food shortage and lack of job causing famine. Chepangs and similar vulnerable indigenous communities require immediate humanitarian support. Seven issues facing these communities are elaborated here.
First, is the economic crisis causing famine? Chepangs, who are daily wage earners have lost their jobs due to lockdown and are facing a food crisis. Majority of uneducated and illiterate Chepangs are daily wage earners working in construction works, furniture industry, hotels and restaurants to name a few. “The absence of alternative sources for wages during the lockdown, has contributed to rising in famine in Chepang community of Dhading districts,” says Tilak Chepang of Benighat village. Neither are farmers able to sell seasonal vegetables due to market lockdown. According to Ramkaji Chepang; Gorkha; “Seasonal vegetables have gone wasted due to the lockdown, the only source of income for Chepang people has been taken away”.
The Chepang face several hurdles in their subsistence agriculture practice. First, is the absence of irrigation as they live and have their land on a hilltop, where irrigation is not possible. Second, most of the land they own is unproductive. Third, they have limited knowledge in farming practice and depend on traditional agriculture practice. The month of April is the season for the sowing of crops. It is the period of the year when their food stock reserves are exhausted. This exposes the Chepang community to the rise in famine in the present crisis.
Second, is the absence of basic healthcare support systems. The Chepang communities lack access to primary health care support systems in the village where people struggle even to get basic medicines for fever, diarrhoea, common cold, minor wound and other emergency cases. The Lockdown and the risk of COVID-19 transmission have further aggravated this lack of basic health care.
Case of cancer patient Aambire Chepang as narrated by his son Keshab Chepang.
“A few months ago, my father Aambire Chepang, 51 was diagnosed with first stage bile duct cancer at Government hospital in Bharatpur. He had his scheduled Chemotherapy on the day when the lockdown was announced by the government. As he missed his chemo due to lockdown and due to absence of medical workers at the hospital to take care of him, he was forced to return home in Korak village, Rapti Municipality 12. Without a functioning health post near his village, Aambire is now fighting for life.” 
Uma Chepang, Staff Nurse in Makwanpur has this to say, “There is a lack of proper health care system in our community and people are not aware of personal hygiene. The risk for people to be infected is very high if this virus is seen in one of the members in the family or community.” 
 Third, is overcrowding at home which makes them prone to infection if a member of the family is infected. A typical Chepang home has one room (15’X22’) where on average all 6 to 7 family members cook, eat and sleep together. There is a high risk of spread of infection in case of any family member being infected.
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A typical Chepang house, Chitwan District, Rapti Municipality (Photo credit: Biswash Chepang)

Fourth, the weekly religious gatherings continue to take place defying the call for social distancing. Though the government has announced mandatory nation-wide social distancing to prevent virus transmission, locals in Dhading districts including Chepang community members are not adhering to this call and are regularly attending religious gatherings.
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Chepangs reciting the Bible on Saturday meetings in Benighat Rorang Gaupalika, Dhading district (Photo credit: Tilak Chepang)

Tilak Chepang from Dhading district has this story: “In spite of the government’s call for mandatory social distancing and the lockdown, some of the local Chepang continue to attend Church gathering every Saturday. This exposes the group to risk of infection if any one member in the group is infected. There are 24 Churches in Dhading and lot of Chepang people in recent years have converted to Christianity.”
Fifth, people who left Kathmandu for their village were not tested before or after they left and pose risk if they carry the virus with them. Millions of people who were staying in the capital city, Kathmandu for education, job and other opportunities have moved back to their villages with fear of COVID-19 outbreak and due to the lockdown. Obviously, the test facility for COVID-19 in Nepal is severely limited in response to the enormous need for this test.
Sixth, poor access to information and awareness relating to how to protect oneself from COVID-19. “Chepang communities still have very little knowledge about COVID-19 and local transmission of the virus. Local people have neither the information nor awareness for prevention on the spread of viruses by taking measures such as social distancing and personal hygiene. Instead, they roam around carelessly as they did prior to the onset of COVID-19” says Aakash Chepang, of Rapti Municipality -12, Chitwan District.
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Chepangs attending a support program at Jimling, Rapti Municipality, Korak village organized by a local political leader (Photo credit: Aakash Chepang)

Seventh, the digital divide causing an inability to participate in the online classes. Online classes have been introduced by education institutions mostly in Kathmandu valley including Tribhuvan University. College students who returned to their home in Chepang villages are not able to join online classes conducted from Kathmandu as they have no access to electricity and have a very poor mobile network. Students from marginalized indigenous community require special provision from the educational institutions or through government education ministry policy so that they are not excluded from taking online classes.
Call for Immediate Humanitarian Emergency Responses
Five measures are suggested to address the present crisis facing the most vulnerable Chepang communities. This may be applicable to similar vulnerable indigenous communities across Nepal. These measures should be introduced possibly at the initiative and coordination of local government in collaboration with local health institutions, local health workers and local communities. Support from other national and international institutions with experience in humanitarian assistance and dealing with the spread of epidemic diseases will be required.
First, there is a need for immediate humanitarian assistance for food, water, primary health care, possibly temporary camps for keeping people in isolation in the Chepang communities. These are pre-requisite for survival and prevention for the spread of COVID-19.
Second, the local government and local health authorities should initiate COVID -19 awareness-raising programme and support local communities to help them deal with the crisis. Thanks to NTC/NCELL for bringing out a caller tone to raise awareness about COVID-19 and possible way to prevent transmission. This text message reaches millions of mobile device owners across the country including Chepang community members. However, whether Chepangs are aware of these caller tones message needs to be monitored. Access to primary health care to the marginalized community can also be increased through telehealth services. Sharing Implications of COVID-19 and global death rate could warn the community members and sensitize to take preventive measures.
Third, the local community health workers should launch a programme to demonstrate proper handwashing together with making water supply accessible.
Fourth, special support program should be introduced to vulnerable groups such as children, women and elderly people.
Fifth, the local government should immediately coordinate with the local farmers so that they are able to sell their products in the market. Facility to store surplus vegetable produce in cold storage should be arranged instead of letting them go waste.
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Bishwas Chepang is from Rapti Municipality -11 Chitwan. He holds Masters in Advanced Development in Social Works from University of Lincoln, UK (2016-2018), Biswash is currently working as Program Coordinator of MBA Nonprofit & MBA Agribusiness at King’s College, Kathmandu.


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