Is Oli lying or clueless?Anyone who has heard the prime minister's speeches knows he always attempts to qualify his words with a veneer of what he thinks is science.
By now there appears to be little sense in pointing out how badly our government has screwed up the national response to Covid-19 since it all appears to be water off a duck’s back. What does stand out amidst all this incompetence is the openly blatant profiteering from a tragedy like a killer pandemic in the purchase of much-needed medical supplies. The sad part is that despite the parliamentary hullabaloo caused by what sounds like genuine indignation from MPs of all hues, all it requires is a nod from Baluwatar and the party faithful will promptly fall in line, and that is likely to be the end of the story.
Yet, I do feel the urge to make a few points about how the government with KP Oli at its head continues to bungle Nepal’s attempt to control the novel coronavirus. A fundamental one is the absence of a consistent and clear-cut flow of information attesting to the government’s stance on any aspect of the Covid-19 disease. We all know of the grand-sounding High-Level Coordination Committee for the Prevention and Control of Novel Coronavirus Disease led by the deputy prime minister as that was the body responsible for all the decisions on the extended lockdown and thereafter, until its responsibility was devolved to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre.
Lack of communication
What beats me is that in spite of the momentous decisions that have been made at the highest levels, nothing has so far been communicated in plain and simple language for all to understand using the nation-wide network of radio, TV and the newspapers. Instead, citizens have been forced to rely on journalistic interpretations of government directives. Some of the online news portals have been publishing the decisions in toto; while that is helpful for the record, not everyone is up to the task of deciphering the densely written text, which probably explains the confusion all around about what can be done, who can drive, where to, and so on. Neither the above-mentioned Committee nor the Centre has a dedicated website where one can get all the information related to Covid-19 in Nepal.
Talking of websites, the Ministry of Health does have a website to provide updates on the Covid-19 situation, but navigating through the pages is quite an experience. The information on the main page shows only the latest figures on Covid-19 cases, deaths, number of tests conducted, etc. Fishing around for disaggregated data takes one to a Google Drive page and clicking ‘Daily Report’ on one of the situation reports there, one is directed inexplicably to the homepage of the Ministry of Social Development of Bagmati Province. All every confusing and not at all intuitive—unlike the popular sites which rely on information from the Ministry of Health such as Worldometer or Our World in Data. (The graph accompanying this piece was derived from the latter in a matter of minutes whereas the information on the Ministry’s website would take hours just to convert it to usable data.)
Even as our knowledge about Covid-19 continues to grow and evolve, what we do know is that lockdowns are essential to control the spread of Covid-19. And, when we do open up the economy, it is to be done by taking all the precautions necessary: social distancing along with the use of face masks, continuous testing, followed by tracing and isolation of those who could be potentially infected. Given the problems with testing that seem to crop up on a daily basis, and the absence of tracing and isolation that has not been even attempted with any degree of seriousness, the country could be in store for something far more terrible than what we have managed to avoid so far. Especially considering that people out on the streets, in offices and the markets have begun to behave as if the coronavirus has been vanquished just because the lockdown has been loosened up somewhat.
Social distancing and masks could go a long way in preventing a larger outbreak, but the government has not made either mandatory. Neither are we being told that we do not yet know if recovery from the disease confers immunity or that testing negative for Covid-19 means nothing more than the fact that the person did not have the disease when tested, and that all the precautions have to be adhered to. Local governments have been issuing certificates to those whose tests show negative. While such a step may have been well-intentioned to preclude stigmatisation, it could easily be taken as a free pass to do whatever one pleases. Instead, the most visible aspect of the government at present is in the police enforcing the odd-even rule for motorised transport as if we were faced with a traffic problem and not a pandemic.
More recent news has come in that people coming into the Kathmandu Valley can simply quarantine themselves at home for 14 days instead of being tested. But if one were to seek any kind of guidelines on what constitutes home quarantine, its dos and don’ts, there is nothing to be found. With the decree of quarantining at home issued, it is assumed that it will be seamlessly put in practice, without any consideration of the cheek-by-jowl living arrangements of a large section of the population, or without any kind of support envisaged, for instance, to a single person who would be breaking quarantine rules should she venture out to buy food.
The ‘scientific’ mind
This brings us to Prime Minister Oli and the manner in which he has been making a superlative ass of himself through his disjointed sermons in Parliament, such as the need to sneeze away the coronavirus. Enough has been said and written about his completely unfounded and dangerous claims, enough guffaws have erupted at his expense, including in Parliament, where there seems to have been titters equally with him as at him. But for some reason, nothing seems to affect Oli and neither does he even try to modulate his penchant for making the most outrageous of statements.
In trying to understand why Oli says what he does, The Captive Mind (1955) by the Polish-American poet and Nobel laureate, Czesław Miłosz, can perhaps provide an answer. Written to reflect conditions behind the Iron Curtain in the post-war period, Miłosz’s was a sharp critique of Stalinism, a school of thought that Oli would have been immersed in deeply. Miłosz explains how the increase in literacy in the 19th century led to the production of brochures explaining scientific theories in popular language. ‘The leaders of the 20th century, like Hitler for instance, drew their knowledge from popular brochures, which explains the incredible confusion in their minds’, he writes. ‘Evidently, there is no place in such digests for the humble remarks of true scientists who assure us that the laws discovered are hypothetical and relative to the method chosen and the system of symbols used. Vulgarised knowledge characteristically gives birth to a feeling that everything is understandable and explained’.
One cannot but agree with Miłosz that knowledge is often vulgarised by those who come to power and believe that political power bestows certain omniscience, a fallacy that Oli has fallen a willing victim to. He is not alone though; think Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, for immediate reference. Anyone who has heard Oli’s weird pronouncements knows very well that he always attempts to qualify his statements with a veneer of what he thinks is science. I do not suppose he ever got to see the ‘scientific’ brochures mentioned by Miłosz, but his understanding of many things is as half-baked as it would be if he had. The confusion in his mind arises from not having fully grasped the essence of science, leading him to make a fool of himself, time after time. With someone like that in charge of the country, perhaps we are bigger fools to expect any better from our government.