Interview | ‘Attention to socio-economic vulnerability for Covid-19 infection is important to address disparities across population groups:’ Dr Drona Rasali

'If Nepal provides a conducive environment, Nepali Diaspora can come to Nepal to live, work and contribute to the country in their own field.'

NL Today

  • Read Time 7 min.

Dr Drona Rasali has been the Director of Population Health Surveillance and Epidemiology at British Columbia Center for Disease Control (BCCDC), Canada, since 2012. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

Dr Rasali was Provincial Chronic Disease Epidemiologist at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health (2005-2012) and held the position of adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina (2009-2019). He also served as a doctor of veterinary medicine and senior scientist in the Government of Nepal from 1980 to 1999. Dr Rasali earned his PhD from the University of Manitoba, received his veterinary medicine degree in India, Master’s degree in genetics and related health sciences from the Philippines and post-graduate training in Australia and the UK. Nepal Live Today spoke to Dr Rasali on contemporary issues. Excerpts:

As a public health professional, you called for a regional approach to deal with Covid-19 in South Asia. Looking back, do you think this approach worked?

In the summer last year, at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic was flaring up of inter-country transmissions in the South Asian region, we, a group of academic faculties and researchers mostly from Canada, got together and published an The Globe & Mail OpEd followed by an editorial article in the BMJ Global Health calling for a regional mechanism of cooperation and collaboration for sharing public health information as well as supporting each other to mitigate the pandemic crises. Concurrently, an online petition to the Government of Canada was floated. Shortly, the Government of Canada dispatched a special flight from its Military Headquarters Trenton to Pakistan and Nepal. The shipment included 162 ventilators and related equipment for Pakistan, and 27 ventilators and related equipment, and over 16,000 units of PPE for Nepal. The awareness of a need for regional cooperation is there now. However, much work has to be done to put in place a solid mechanism for regional cooperation in public health which we are advocating to be based on scientific evidence rather than arbitrary political decisions.

How do you see the threat of the new wave of Covid-19 affecting the South Asia region? What should the governments in the region do?

Covid-19 is not going to go away completely any time soon, as new variants keep on emerging due to frequent mutation of SARF-COV-2 virus during its rapid process of multiplying and spreading. Now, the public health model of transmission tracking has gone out of hand and out of reach, but because of good vaccination coverage across the populations, the Covid-19 is becoming more of a common infection, not as deadly as it is at its real potential.

‘The NRN movement was a necessary and right thing to do for both the Nepal government and Nepali Diaspora around the world.’

So, the governments cannot just take seemingly lowering of the scale of severe disease outcomes for granted. That means the governments have to keep the transmission tracking, variant tracking and epidemiology of the disease constantly updated, while they keep their vaccine supplies adequately stocked up for periodic booster doses for their respective jurisdictions. The goal of the governments should be to reduce the burden of severe outcomes of the disease so that hospitalization, ICU care and deaths are minimized as much as possible. My own team’s research is also showing that attention to socio-economic vulnerability for Covid-19 infection is also important to address disparities across population groups.

You have been involved with the Non Resident Nepali Association (NRNA). How do you see its achievements so far?

The NRN movement was a necessary and right thing to do for both the Nepal government and Nepali Diaspora around the world. NRNA was established in 2003, but I came to understand the movement well since 2008 when we established NRNA National Coordinating Committee in Canada. At that time, I saw a need for myself to provide crucial assistance to establish the organization in an amicable manner bringing all important groups of Nepalis into a single fold, rather than being divided. Back then, I did feel that I might have earned some good will among Nepali community that could be helpful to mend the anomalies and tensions that were building up among various groups at the time of initial establishment. Then, I was elected as the Deputy Regional Coordinator for Americas for 2009 to 2011, followed by my nomination as a NRNA International Coordinating Committee (ICC) Advisor for 2011-2013 tenure. Talking about the achievements so far, I can say the global organization’s achievements have been humongous on many fronts, especially in expanding itself as truly a global organization of Nepali Diaspora to 60 countries to date. As a result, substantial financial investment, global knowledge exchange and NRN citizenship have been three most significant achievements. Especially, in the area of knowledge exchange, in which I am still actively involved, bringing Nepali experts of knowledge in science, technology, health, agriculture, engineering, human sciences, information technology, communications, social sciences and so on to one platform to communicate and collaborate has been an important milestone that will have far reaching implications in the development of Nepal.

Both Houses of Parliament of Nepal have passed the Citizenship Amendment Act thereby opening the route for implementation of the NRN Citizenship in Nepal. Will the new Act address the concerns of the NRNs?

NRNs, or Nepali Diaspora, are the people who have deep love for their motherland Nepal, which they want to see prosper along with other countries around the world. The country has had a long overdue back-log for basic development of the country, especially in the areas of infrastructure, higher education, science and technology, tapping of natural resources and overall production systems, where NRNs see themselves as stakeholders not only as contributors to development but also as immediate family members of their end users in Nepal. Moreover, more than a quarter share of the total GDP of the country comes from remittances from NRNs. These vital factors bring them home at heart, despite being abroad. Keeping them away from their rights of being at the core of the country’s development by depriving them of some sort of recognition as a part of the nationhood was not right. Now the forthcoming NRN citizenship is the right type of recognition that all NRNs deserve. The provision brought by the current amendment to the Act should address the concerns of the NRNs adequately, provided that it is implemented properly without any prejudice.

You were actively involved in NRNA efforts to set up the Open University Nepal (OUN). Do you think the OUN is working as per its mandate?

Dr Pramod Dhakal, Dr Ambika Adhikari, Dr Raju Adhikari and I myself were four principal proponents of the Open University of Nepal (OUN) initiative of the NRNA. We, after a long struggle since 2009 until 2015, brought the OUN Bill to be materialized to the point of getting the Presidential stamp to become the Act required to establish the University.

‘The forthcoming NRN citizenship is the right type of recognition that all NRNs deserve. It should address the concerns of the NRNs adequately, provided that it is implemented properly without any prejudice.’

Originally, the whole struggle was to establish an innovative University system to provide access to higher education to the remote, rural and marginalized people who have been largely deprived of higher education opportunities. However, once the OUN was established, it just became yet one more University to be added to the list of Universities in Nepal. I am happy to see that the OUN is running well as a national Open University of the country. At the same time, its original mandate will only be fulfilled once remote, rural and marginalized people start getting admission through an ‘open’ admission system and the barriers to higher education access become broken in the country.

It is said that more than 10,000 Nepali professionals live and work in North America. What do you think should be done to mobilize their skills and resources for the development of Nepal?

The large number of Nepali scientists and professionals living in North Americas are actually a great resource for Nepal’s development, as they are willing and ready to contribute to that end in a variety of ways. In order to tap on this great resource, NRN citizenship, which is coming up, is one thing that should create a motivation for them to begin to jump in. A culture of trust removing any hiccups for their unconditional engagement in the development of Nepal needs to be created. Importantly, a large number of NRN professionals in the Americas, who fall in the age group of ‘baby boomers’ are on the verge of retiring with their own hard-earned pensions to live wherever they like. If Nepal provides a conducive environment, they can come to Nepal to live, work and contribute to the country in their own field. Further, many professionals are achieving excellence in many emerging fields of science and technology in flying colors. Nepal can tap on them with easy access even if they have to be paid for their compensation. They understand issues better and do a better job for Nepal than other foreign international consultants.

Once I had heard from a very high official of the Philippines Government that they had been negotiating with the international donors to give preference to Philippine Diaspora consultants over other foreign consultants. Can Nepal create such a system of trust for NRNs?  

As a member of the SKI (Skill, Knowledge and Innovation) Committee of the NRNA, how do you think the Diaspora can help in the development of Science and Technology back home?

I have been a founding member of SKI of the NRNA and am still contributing actively to Nepal through this platform in order to enhance knowledge exchange of science and technology for the country. Personally and collaborating with colleagues, I am currently working from two fronts. On one side, I am writing and disseminating information and ideas to motivate Nepali professionals promoting science and technology for Nepal. On the other hand, I am advocating what needs to be done in Nepal. Some of the futuristic ideas for implementation I have been floating in wide ranging fields for Nepal include a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab, science communication promotion, traditional artisan University, food security, evidence-based public health, cultural humility and safety for the dignity of all the people. One completed project I would like to mention at this juncture is a postgraduate level book on the principles and practices of food security in Nepal which was published by Nepali Agricultural Professionals in Americas (NAPA) in 2020. I was the Editor-in-Chief and a chapter author of this book, while a total of 49 Nepali Diaspora professionals and their colleagues from the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and Nepal authored various chapters.  This should serve as a fine example of how Nepali Diaspora Professionals can contribute collaboratively as well.