Covid-19 exposes a governance crisisOn the pretext of the emergency, the government moved to procure medical supplies from a shady private company.
Many 'experts' tend to believe that the very small number of Covid-19 infections reported in Nepal is gross underplaying of the ground realities and under-reporting of the actual situation due to the very limited number of tests that have been carried out. God willing, Nepal might still be one of the least infected countries in the world. However, the actual scenario may begin to unfold in a couple of weeks from now, when the lockdown expires and potential carriers—including those coming in from abroad—begin to mingle socially.
It also depends on how safely the government manages to screen and isolate infected people among the several thousand Nepali migrants at the quarantine shelters on the Nepal-India border and how safely it transfers them to their homes or to hospitals as required.
Apart from the inevitable economic, social or psychological costs of the pandemic itself, the virus onslaught has exposed Nepal's pervasive and perennial crisis of governance. Yes, given the swiftness and scale of the pandemic, each and every government in the world is also struggling to contain and control the spread of the virus and manage its obvious negative consequences. Unfortunately, in the case of Nepal, what is adding insult to injury is excessive politicking and mala fide intentions of exploiting the emergency situation to subserve the interests of a handful of members of the ruling elite.
This has manifested itself in all possible forms of malaise—including a political power struggle, corruption, mismanagement, the undermining of state systems and an appalling degree of apathy towards the plight of the economically vulnerable sections of society.
Addressing a video conference with the chief ministers of all seven provinces on Saturday, Prime Minister KP Oli summarily quashed the idea of forming an all-party mechanism to deal with the Covid-19 crisis as proposed by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the co-chair of the ruling Nepal Communist Party. It was a slap in face of Dahal, who had floated the proposal seeking 'some national role' for himself as the coordinator of such a mechanism to address this unprecedented epidemic. Some opposition leaders like the Nepali Congress' Ram Chandra Paudel also threw the card of forming a 'national' government to manage the crisis which only boomeranged on him, politically.
An absolute lack of coordination among the government agencies coupled with increasing personality clashes between key cabinet members like Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel and Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa is causing confusion in the mobilisation of resources and the procurement of medicines and equipment to combat the coronavirus.
Pokhrel heads the High-Level Coordination Committee for the Prevention and Control of Covid-19 formed in spite of the existing Central Natural Disaster Relief Committee. The Home Ministry has a dedicated Disaster Management Division which coordinates the provincial and district-level disaster relief committees. The Nepal Police operates a permanent Disaster Management Centre. The Nepal Army has instituted a new Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre. A separate health emergency response mechanism also exists under the Ministry of Health.
In the name of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, such totally avoidable duplication of authority at the expense of taxpayer money exhibits both an extra-legal exercise of political power and a whole new level of mismanagement.
On the pretext of the emergency, the government was forced to procure medical supplies related to Covid-19 diagnostics and treatment from a shady private company with numerous political connections, abrogating a due bidding process towards its conclusion. The first consignment of supplies turned out to be substandard yet far more expensive than the prevailing market price.
The Department of Health Services, after unfavourable media reports, cancelled the contract. But, on the one hand, the same substandard equipment and kits are now being distributed all over the country; and on the other, the government, as if to deliberately create another crisis, did not immediately expedite the process afresh to procure the same. Evidently, due to an acute short supply of personal protective equipment for medical professionals at the hospitals and testing kits at the assigned laboratories, Nepal has been failing to achieve the much-needed mass and rapid testing for SARS-CoV-2.
As the people in crucial public positions are indulging in rent-seeking, the lack of coordination among the hospitals across the country is alarming. This includes a lack of coordination in supply chain and logistics management. Despite all this, impunity looms large. Prime Minister Oli in his televised address to the nation last week defiantly warned that nobody should raise questions against the people he patronised 'working in these hard times', regardless of any possible misdeeds by them.
The federal government has utterly failed to take the provincial and local governments into confidence while taking decisions centred on issues to control and manage the Covid-19 crisis. For example, last Thursday, the chief ministers stood aghast when the prime minister's official Twitter handle announced that 'the centre' planned to assist the citizens willing to leave Kathmandu Valley to go to their hometowns even without seeking the opinion of the sub-national governments which ultimately have the responsibility to host them, safely. Of course, only when one of the chief ministers protested, was the decision quickly 'withdrawn'.
Now, the local level governments have elected executives with a substantive amount of financial resources at their disposal. They have all key information related to the financial status including absentee members about all the households. Given the authority, necessary guidelines and support, this federated state structure can become very instrumental in every aspect of virus testing, supply chain management, systematic distribution of relief and, in the longer time horizon, managing the decelerating economy.
But instead of using this pandemic as an opportunity to mobilise the federal structure, the federal government is still unwilling to take these elected representatives onboard on crucial decision-making processes and their implementation. The federal government, as mentioned above, is keen to create new structures at the centre while the overall authority of relief and supply chain still remains with the District Disaster Relief Committee, not the local governments, headed by the chief district officer who takes orders directly from the federal Home Ministry. Surprisingly, even the provincial governments have failed to take the initiative to procure, for example, diagnostic kits and personal protective equipment for the hospitals in their jurisdiction.
In a nutshell, the crisis of governance faced in general and in dealing with the current Covid-19 crisis, in particular, is adding to the confusion; it may soon result in the mass spread of the virus, broken supply chains and an unbearable economic crisis.