Abdication of governancePower in a democracy has been perceived as a tool to empower the many, but in practice, it has benefitted only a few.
The pandemic caused by the coronavirus has catapulted the global political order into uncertain territory. With the number of cases and deaths linked to Covid-19 increasing unabated, governments across the world are struggling to put together a proper response. In Nepal, it has also challenged the state. The response of the government so far has been ordinary. There is a sense that the government has abdicated from its fundamental responsibility to govern. Images of people walking and making the treacherous journey back home to rural Nepal paints a painful yet accurate portrait of the plight of the underprivileged. As ruling party politicians continue to squabble, persistent stories of state corruption and state indifference towards tackling the epidemic dominates the national political landscape. What has made the situation worse in Nepal is that the ongoing power struggle within the ruling party has gained priority over pressing issues such as reviving the economy, opening the lockdown and managing the humanitarian crisis.
It’s not just the prime minister
At the heart of today’s problem is that state institutions have failed. Prime Minister KP Oli inherited a deeply politicised bureaucracy which had been patronised for inertia, as political affiliation outweighed competence. This failure in institutions cannot only be attributed to Oli; the failure of state institutions is a culmination of the politicisation of state institutions by all political parties over the years. The bureaucracy in the past has had a history of noncooperation with ideologically opposite governments. And in such a politically motivated atmosphere within the unions, it is an allegiance that ultimately triumphs. Consequently, the right person rarely occupies the position he deserves in critical postings of the state machinery.
In times of crisis, the role of the bureaucracy is paramount in tackling the civil, social and economic impact. Politicians' role in executive positions are limited to initiating policy level decisions—it is the bureaucracy which will implement the political will of the government on the ground. The absence of competent administrators at critical positions will continue to undermine the efforts of the elected executive.
Let us for a moment examine the recent government decision to deploy health volunteers across the country. This is just another example of how a failed pedagogy besieges the government. These health volunteers are mostly political appointees, who possess little or no basic knowledge in public health and are trained to diagnose the simplest of complications. In other words, the majority of the health volunteers owe their jobs to their allegiance to a particular political party. It is no wonder that public health remains to be an area where Nepal has continuously failed. The crisis has laid bare the gross incompetence of public health institutions. While the country has been fortunate to record low infection rates, the concerned institutions have delayed the testing of suspected patients, failed to set up adequate quarantine facilities, and largely failed at procuring the necessary medical supplies at a competitive price.
Politics has failed Nepal
While institutions have failed to deliver, it is critical to examine why politics has also failed the state. I cannot but think of Max Weber and his seminal lecture, ‘Politics as a Vocation’ which he delivered to the Free Students Union in Bavaria in 1918. The use of power, Weber had argued, should always be for the greater public good. Weber further asserted that it is vital that ‘politicians live for politics’, as opposed to ‘politicians living off politics’. The fundamental problem with politics today is that politicians are nakedly living off politics. This clientele nexus between politicians and a small critical mass in society has demonstrated how democracy benefits selectively.
KP Oli’s time in office, like that of his predecessors, has been no different. The Nepali state may have transformed politically, but the social fabric of the country remains unapologetically archaic. Even the Maoists were quickly absorbed into this social structure when they came into power. As Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, claims, ‘the oppressed most commonly becomes the oppressor’. Power in a democracy has always been perceived as a tool to empower the many, but in practice, power in the eyes of the common man has benefitted only a limited few.
Moving forward, what can governments in the future do to deliver better governance? The present constitutional framework is the only alternative that provides certainty. And it is better we tread on a path that is well known. To begin with, Oli and his party have the mandate to rule. Therefore, any solution to the present crisis can only come from the prime minister and the ruling party. And there is an urgent need to restore faith in state institutions at the earliest to deliver governance.
A concerted effort must be put in place to strengthen public institutions to deliver governance for the future. For this Oli and his party must be bold to dissolve unions in the bureaucracy led by political parties. Politicians also have a critical stake in initiating policy and executing a carefully considered strategy to improve the daily lives of the people they represent. Looking into the future, there is an urgent need for able and educated politicians to occupy managerial positions to ensure the success of future governments. Oli and his party must restore faith in democratic governance by demonstrating that his administration is there for the many and not just for the few. The current crisis is a defining moment for the prime minister.
What do you think?
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Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.