Stepping into the crisisThe Covid-19 crisis will be a litmus test of Nepal’s fledgeling federal system.
Nepal has been under lockdown for over two weeks now. It may be the unprecedented scale of the contagion or the lack of trust in our own public healthcare systems, but Nepalis are showing remarkable discipline of social distancing which has helped to contain the spread of the disease. With the elite private health system chickening-out during this crisis, we are finally being haunted by the policy choices we have made. Nobody would know that better than those who have called the shots from Singha Durbar and are now as worried for their loved ones as the rest of us are. Dr Govinda KC may have finally made his point, without skipping a meal.
It isn’t exactly clear to what extent the Covid-19 crisis will affect our economy that was barely recuperating from a decade-long conflict and another decade of instability. But the government has done well to maintain the essential supplies in the market through selective outlets, and commendable coordination between the major importers, retailers and the commercial banks. Nobody is complaining about why the garlic costs have trebled or why hand-sanitisers and masks have suddenly become rare gems—nobody that counts anyways.
Tea-shops, eateries and road-side vendors have remained shut, and thousands of men and women working in the informal sector have already lost their jobs and livelihood due to the unfolding crisis. Those that have run out of cash and supplies in big cities like Kathmandu, Pokhara, Biratnagar and Birgunj, are bundling-up their belongings and making a long painful journey home.
‘Do you think the lockdown will be extended?’, asked Bikram, my next-door neighbour who runs a local barbershop in Dhobighat, Lalitpur. Bikram still has a week’s worth of supplies left. He hasn’t exactly figured out what happens when that runs out. Standing between the fences, I told him the local ward offices are finally collecting the data of wage workers for relief distribution, but he has his reasons for worrying.
A hard-working man from India’s Motihari district in Bihar, Bikram has been running his hair salon for five years. He earns well for himself but has been hit by the crisis, having sent all his savings back to his family for his brother’s wedding. Hundreds of Nepali and Indian migrant worker families walk the cold spring mornings towards the Balkhu and Koteshwor intersection, hoping for a ride back in the ferry trucks that bring in supplies for those of us who can still afford it. Bikram may be forced to join the long march home—sooner rather than later. It is a silently unfolding humanitarian crisis.
When Nepal adopted the federal system, it was expected that the government would come closer to the people through elected representatives at the provincial, municipal and ward-level offices. However, more than two years later, all three tiers of government have been caught unprepared to handle the crisis within their respective constituencies. This is glaring in the federal government’s mismanagement and alleged misappropriation over the purchase of emergency medical supplies from China, as well as in the tragic images of the returnee population being abandoned at the Nepal-India border. The failure to immediately establish functioning quarantine facilities along all major border-points, in anticipation of the returning migrant population, is not only on the federal government. It exposes the incapability of the provinces to proactively step into their territorial jurisdiction.
As the risk of infection spreads into remote areas, it will further expose our local governments or the lack of it. Rural municipalities with sparse settlements will struggle to handle cases of complex viral infections with modest facilities and an insufficient number of health professionals. There will also be increased pressure on the municipal governments to provide relief to the economically vulnerable population. There are already reports of localised conflict over relief distribution, that will test local security and governance across various municipalities.
When the news of the disease outbreak and deaths came out of China, nobody expected it to spread as rapidly as it did. But, Covid-19 has exposed our vulnerabilities and the limitations of human civilisation to cope with crises like never before. Even as we live through the pandemic, the economically interdependent and geopolitically volatile world order may not change much, as global superpowers are caught between hard choices of collaborating and competing. But, it does provide an opportunity for governments, especially in developing countries, to rethink their own priorities.
Having lived through the 2015 earthquake, Nepal should be hopeful. But it must know the limitations of external support, as well as the importance of investing in strengthening local capacities and preparedness. Our political bosses should have known by now—when the disaster strikes, it does not discriminate between the classes and the masses. As the number of infected in Nepal nears the double-digits, all three governments should proactively step into their jurisdiction, take necessary policy decisions and collaborate among themselves, and make the best use of available resources to serve and protect their population. It is a litmus test for Nepal’s fledgeling federal system.