A failure of leadershipOne cannot help but believe that our country’s leadership is also badly afflicted by the ‘great man’s disease’.
Enough has been, and will continue to be, written about the many missteps taken by the federal government with regard to the Covid-19 crisis, a trend that continues apace every passing day. For the immediate moment, the media has been inundated by heart-rending accounts and videos of the thousands of wage workers, and sometimes their families, trekking back home in the face of a lockdown that continues to be extended without end in sight. That a government that claims to be of, by and for the workers could not foresee this human tragedy says a lot about how far our rulers have been alienated from the ruled.
In the face of all the negative press he was receiving, Oli latched on to a national survey that showed more than 70 percent of the population expressing approval of the government’s handling of the pandemic. The survey, of course, was undertaken in early April before the full scale of the bungling of the medical equipment purchase from China had become clear. It was also conducted at the household level and would obviously not have captured the itinerant population now on the move. Even in ideal conditions, this group would have comprised only a small subset of the survey sample of 1,110, and whose possibly negative responses would perhaps not have swayed the overall results. But their collective suffering is no less real.
That is why it is very jarring to read statements like this: ‘Who told them to defy the lockdown? I don’t think that any Nepali is dying from hunger due to the lockdown. They should stop defying the lockdown. The federal government and other tiers of government will take care of them’. That was from the press adviser to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. Either the gentleman has not been reading the papers, or every reporter out in the field has been duped by disparate groups of people who are all actually just taking a stroll back home and using stories of food running out and local governments not stepping up only as an excuse to thumb their noses at the government in perfect coordination.
Also jarring is when you consider that the principal adviser to the prime minister, i.e., someone closest to his ear, spent almost his entire career in the trade union movement, and the outfit he headed till recently, GEFONT, counts among its affiliates, the Central Union of Painters, Plumbers, Electro and Construction Workers, with nearly 100,000 members, along with other unions representing domestic workers, street vendors, transport workers, auto mechanics, rickshaw pullers, agricultural workers and tea plantation workers, among others. It was thus a grave failure of the government not to have anticipated how badly this same group of workers would be hit by the lockdown.
He did not coin the phrase but Nobel laureate Paul Krugman certainly gave currency to the concept of the ‘great man’s disease’, which he explains as when someone well known for a particular achievement develops the notion that he or she is an expert on any and everything under the sun. More recently, Krugman reformulated the idea as the ‘billionaire’s disease’, ‘the tendency to assume that just because you’re rich you’re also smarter than anyone else’. Readers surely get the point since everyone would have had experience in everyday life of coming across people similarly stricken.
One cannot help but believe that our country’s leadership is also badly afflicted by the ‘great man’s disease’. That can be the only explanation for how our lockdown has proceeded over the weeks. One wonders at the kind of public health advice the government has been receiving and how much of it they have taken to heart. But with lockdowns all over the world announced for weeks at a time, and our own government implementing it in piecemeal fashion can only suggest that our leaders went against all epidemiological evidence available at the time, and came up with a decision that can in no way stop the spread of the disease. Especially considering that China’s lockdown of Wuhan was into its third month at the time ours started, and proving to be effective.
Thus, on March 20, our government announced the suspension of all non-essential services, including long-distance travel, to last from March 22 to April 3. And then almost without any warning, it instituted a week-long total lockdown on March 24. All the people who have been on the long march home have consistently said they expected the lockdown to be lifted after a week and normal life to resume. Hence, they stayed put, hoping to ride out the short lockdown with their own meagre savings. It was only after the lockdown was extended consecutively, first to 7 April, then to 15 April, and now to 27 April, that they realised they were completely on their own. Thus began their treks of hundreds of kilometres, braving the police checkpoints, local municipal restrictions, hunger, and their own physical exhaustion.
Had the government made it clear that an extended lockdown would follow the suspension of long-distance travel, in the two days before it took effect most of them, if not almost everyone, would have headed home or made alternative arrangements in the interim. Even the survey Oli touted showed that 44 percent of the respondents had not done anything to prepare for the lockdown, not even stocked up on foodstuff. That is how badly the government handled the lockdown.
Resort to dissemblance
While all this was being played out, on April 9 came the news that the government would allow those stranded in the Kathmandu Valley to leave in the next couple of days, raising the hopes of many who had begun to despair at their fate. But their joy was to last less than two hours when the government took back its decision, citing opposition from local and provincial governments.
What was a positive sign that those in power had been moved by all the suffering they read about or saw on television then turned into a blame game that swiftly focused on the press. Despite the documentary evidence (as provided in the accompanying image) that it was the government that had been proclaimed the fact through an authority no less than the Office of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, the Home Ministry saw it fit to characterise the whole episode as some kind of rumour spread by the news media.
When the entire country is looking for the kind of leadership that could catapult ordinary politicians to the level of statesmanship, we are being subjected to dissemblance and, worse, fed lies. It gives us very little cause to believe that our government will be up to dealing with the much larger challenge that is brewing abroad with the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers caught between ruthless governments in destination countries and our own that continues to busy itself with doling out favours to the party faithful.
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