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COVID-19’s impact on Dalit community in Nepal

The world is suffering from COVID-19 pandemic and Nepal is no exception with more than 600 deaths and 100,000 COVID-19 positive cases. The graph is increasing by the day.

In order to control the outbreak at the community level, the government imposed nation-wide lockdown for almost six months that hugely affected the livelihood of the poor and marginalized communities, mainly the Dalits.

Following the lockdown, the hotel, transportation, private sector, construction sector, informal sector, and industries were closed. All the people dependent on these sectors have no work to do and it has affected their earnings. A recent UNDP report showed that three in five employees have lost their jobs and tourism receipts are projected to fall by 60 per cent this year resulting in a US$ 400 million loss.The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has caused a complete closure of about 61 percent enterprises, leading to 73.8 percent drop in the production and trade of goods and services in the country (A nationwide survey on the ‘Impact of COVID-19 on the economy’ conducted by the Nepal Rastra Bank (National Bank of Nepal).

Most of the Dalit community members have lost their employment opportunities due to the pandemic, as majority of the Dalits depend on daily wages and small scale income-generating activities. The Dalit community is a historically excluded group and suffers even more from the pandemic. The Dalits, also known as the “untouchables”, are prone to any kind of disaster since half of their population is living under the poverty line. Most of the Dalits are landless and millions rely on daily wages from the informal sectors.

A recent survey conducted by the DCA on the Impacts of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in Sudurpashchim Province showed that 46 percent of those returning from seasonal migration after losing their jobs were from the Dalit Community. This also shows that the majority of seasonal migrant workers going to India looking for jobs are from the Dalit community and they are hugely affected.

The Government of Nepal has eased the lockdown phase wise. It has partially lifted lockdown from 17 September 2020, allowing local and long route buses travel across the country, resumption of restaurants, hotels, shops and domestic flights from 21 September. But everyone has to follow the Ministry of Health and Population health and safety guidelines. The places or institutions with potential for high intensity transmission (schools, colleges, trainings, cinema hall, party palace, religious places, etc.) will remain closed. However, it will take years to normalize the situation.

The pandemic has pushed the marginalized communities in vulnerable situation back to several years.

According to news reports, Malar Sada from Saptari district in eastern Terai region starved to death due to extreme poverty. Because of the acute poverty of his family, the locals raised donations for his cremation. This is the situation of most of the poor daily worker Dalits in Nepal – and not only Dalits, but of most of the vulnerable and marginalized people amid lockdown. Local government is distributing relief materials but it is not enough to provide for a family even for a week. Dailts have been barred from getting the relief materials as they couldn’t produce citizenship or voter card. Some even didn’t know about the distribution.

Dalits are deprived of nutritious food and pregnant Dalit women lack nourishment.

Dalits are deprived of nutritious food and pregnant Dalit women lack nourishment. Not just economically, they are also excluded socially and have been always struggling for their existence.

According to a study conducted by Samata Foundation, 56 caste-based discrimination cases were reported during the lockdown period, and among them, eight caste-based discriminatory behaviors happened in the quarantine centers. A Dalit woman was beaten up by a Ward Chairperson during relief material collection in Mahottari District in eastern Terai. The district court doesn’t seem to give priority to caste-based discrimination cases even though the Supreme Court of Nepal has asked the district court to prioritize the case.

The Dalit community covers 13.2 percent of the total population in Nepal and they are historically marginalized in a systematic way. As a result of which, 42 percent are under the poverty line which is 17 percent higher than the national average (25.2 percent). Due to the exclusion, 36.7 percent Hill and 41.4 percent Madhesi Dalits are landless which has made them economically vulnerable and dependent upon landlords. Around 42.5 percent Dalits depend on elementary occupation due to lack of occupational skills, 52.4 percent are illiterate and have poor access to resources and are still dependent on traditional occupations (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2011.). Nepal’s Multi Indicator Survey, the food sufficiency means value (percent) is extremely low for Dalits compared to an average 77 percent. The food sufficiency for Hill Dalits is 56 percent and Tarai/Madhesi Dalits is 53.7 percent, which indicate that remaining Dalits are not privileged to consume adequate amounts of food. Analyzing these data, it can easily be speculated the current plight of the Dalit community.

The Dalit community has less access to WASH facility (Nepal Social Inclusion Survey (NSIS) 2012, TU), media and means of information (radio, phone, social media, and TV) about COVID-19 related information, lack of access to service. Dalit community is not aware and informed about the importance of personal hygiene and physical distancing, which can put them in a higher risk of contracting the disease (FEDO).

The pandemic is still ongoing, and it is impossible to predict when it will end. In this situation, the Government of Nepal and non-government organizations should bring immediate adequate relief package to the poor and Dalit communities.

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of psychosocial counseling. The Dalit communities have been suffering from physical and mental torture created by caste-based discrimination for centuries. Nepal Police report shows that there has been tremendous increase in suicide cases following the COVID-19 crisis. At least 20 people are killing themselves on a daily basis, which is almost double than the last year. Therefore, one psychosocial-counseling center should be established in each ward and it should be continued even after the pandemic.

All the information related to the COVID-19 pandemic should be accessible to all including the Dalit community, which however is not the case. Owing to their poor economic and social status, Dalit community has less access to media and other means of information. This may demand for a more tailored and robust awareness raising activities on COVID-19 targeted for the marginal segment of the community including the Dalits.


This situation calls for the attention from the relevant sectors–both government and non-government–in generating the shorter term and longer-term employment opportunities to the Dalit communities.

They also have their traditional occupation which can be supported to upgrade and modernize through technical and financial assistance, so that they get better access to market and potential buyers/consumers.

It has been a long time since development sector and the Government of Nepal have been working for the Dalit community but still expected results have not arrived. Moreover, this pandemic has shown the real vulnerable condition of the Dalit community so there’s a need from the government and non-government organizations to review their working modality, plan and policy while designing the post pandemic program.

There needs to be an appropriate and realistic plan immediately in such a humanitarian crisis but the problem is that we don’t have real statistics of the affected Dalit community. The government should take data disaggregation based on gender, caste, ethnicity, age, and disability to ensure that no one is left behind from the government’s initiatives while addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in all phases.

The writer is a Programme Assistant at DCA, a Danish INGO.

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