Information, please!The government needs to communicate its lockdown policies better to the people.
Let me start with a story: someone I know had been stuck in Kathmandu for over a month because of the lockdown. He had come from his village near the Tatopani border to buy glass sheets for his house; for 30 days, he would sit out in the sun, playing with his niece at times, but mostly on his phone. Then his wife, back home in his village, grew desperate. The maize had to be harvested, else the crop would rot in the rains. Jackals had lifted their chickens because there weren’t enough people to guard. The children were getting restless. And it was also time to plant millet, for little rice grows where they live.
The wife told him to walk home if he had to. But how could one walk home during thunderstorms? A few from his village had walked back earlier from Kathmandu—but that was immediately after the lockdown had been declared. A few others were stuck, like him. There were no indications the lockdown would end anytime soon, and now he had to decide.
Then one afternoon, I learnt he had packed his bags and left. His niece told us he’d gone to Koteshwor. His mother (stepmother, really) called him; he said his ward representatives back home were arranging for a vehicle to come pick them up. Had he gone to Koteshwor by himself? No, the others who were stuck had been told to come too. Who said the vehicle would come? Ward officials, who else? Was he wearing a mask? Yes, of course. And what would he do if the vehicle didn’t come? Return, of course. Images of the hundreds of folks gathering at Koteshwor flashed in my mind. Was the minimum distance between people, six feet or more, maintained?
The ‘Sumo jeep’ the representatives had hired arrived. I am not sure how many others there were in the vehicle, but all of them fit in one. At five in the morning, the vehicle dropped him an hour’s walk from home. I assume his family would have been pleased to see him return. My first thoughts were whether he should have quarantined himself upon reaching his village. Perhaps, but the agony of a month’s inactivity and the desperation to return home can overcome any such thoughts.
I thought of the man when news broke that Kathmandu residents whose transport back to the valley had been arranged by Biratnagar authorities were made to wait until the evening at Nagdhunga, on the edge of the valley. Those who had arranged vehicles to get out of Kathmandu are being made to wait inside the vehicle for days. But then, a few extensions ago, the government had itself decided it would allow folks to return home over two days, only to rescind the decision within half an hour. And hadn’t the Supreme Court also told the government to make arrangements for their return? So, even if local authorities took the initiative on their own, why such haphazardness? Why the lack of coordination between federal, provincial and local government units? For, with a little bit of communication, the entire process could have had a protocol in place that would ease public health fears as well as the logistics of transporting people home.
Communication has never been a strong suit in Nepal, in personal affairs or socially. Our hierarchies force us to regard it as a one-way street: top to bottom. The bigger the vehicle (or the higher the said individual is in the social ladder), the more weight his words carry (even if he is wrong). The lack of coordination between our various authorities has been evident. As a Democracy Resource Centre report indicated, the federal government ‘made policy decisions without considering [local and provincial units’] fiscal and technical capabilities which made their implementation difficult’.
If the coordination between federal and other units has been below par, the same has been felt for the information a citizen receives.
I went out one morning to buy vegetables, and my go-to vendor told me the government had now allowed shops like his to open from 7 am to 7 pm. The rider was that I couldn’t lay my grubby hands on the veggies; he would select them for me. As I stood in the green circle that demarcated my social boundaries, I thought it a wonderful decision. It would reduce the crowds that gathered in the mornings and evenings, and also allowed a sense of normalcy to return.
I was wrong. The next morning, I heard of a thrashing. A policeman had been telling everyone around the shops to not crowd around and hurry up with the shopping. One man said something in return. The policeman beat him up, packed him in their van, and took him away. If the 7-to-7 rule was official, had the man done anything wrong? The physical assault as an automatic response was unwarranted. And it is baffling that he was taken to the station. If the new rules had been brought in, this man was well within his right to shop at any time he wanted. But were the rules official? We didn’t even know that. In fact, we still don’t know whether the 7-to-7 rule is official. For, the police verbally told the vegetable shop, but none of the local population was informed. A simple mass SMS could have done the job. But evidently no one thought of this.
There’s a Hindi proverb that goes, Jiski laathi uski bhains (whoever wields the stick owns the buffalo). Increasingly, it seems like Nepal’s essence lies in this saying. Random, inexplicable decisions are the order of the day. We continue to use Omni-potent rapid test kits rejected by other countries. Our government has gone out of its way to ensure the Omni-potent ones can also sell off their excess stock to health NGOs. So many vehicle passes were issued in Kathmandu that the government decided to stop issuing them—but surely some of the passes would have been genuine. But no, instead of looking into the genuine cases, it banned movement altogether. It took three weeks for the government to decide just the list of medical supplies to be brought in, even as time is of the essence. Cases in India went up from 10,000 to 30,000 in three weeks.
While few governments across the world were prepared for a crisis of this magnitude, several others have displayed exemplary leadership qualities and medically aware policies. Already, nations are thinking about how to ease the lockdown, the stimulus packages nations will need, etc. Of course, it’s time for Nepal to start thinking about these issues too; but here we are, still struggling to coordinate transport services and shop timings, and instead worrying about who the next prime minister will be, how to split parties, and ensure those near and dear to us continue to reap profits. The adage is right; only Pashupatinath is protecting us.
What do you think?
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