Mishandling the virus crisisEven after spending Rs10 billion to control Covid-19, the situation has not improved.
Covid-19 continues to spread in the country despite preventive measures to contain the outbreak. The government did take challenging decisions in the early stages of the pandemic. It shut down the aviation industry, both national and international flights, imposed a nationwide lockdown, shelved Tourism Year 2020 and closed the borders despite the huge economic costs. But there has been no letup in new infections. The problem started with a weakly implemented surveillance system, daunting contact tracing, dangerous quarantine facilities, and unscrupulous control mechanisms.
Despite the need for coordination among health workers, disease experts, defence mechanisms, health workers, private sector, media, public and other stakeholders, the government remained aloof and all alone in the fight. Thousands of people are coming from India on a daily basis without proper management of quarantine and preventive facilities. The quarantine centres are not even close to primitive accommodation facilities. This is what is causing people to become recalcitrant and run away to their homes. Now, the doctors and experts are arguing that these quarantine centres have turned into disease-transmitting centres rather than control centres. Such misconduct is nothing but the result of a lack of coordination between government agencies and the public.
There is no way that the government will be able to handle this situation by alienating itself from public sentiments. Lack of a control mechanism and earnestness in winning the migrant people’s sentiments brought the disease into Nepal which was till then confined outside the borders. The government’s failure in scrupulously managing the initial personal protective equipment (PPE) purchase agreement and alleged misconduct on the part of the parties involved, including no disease expert in the High-Level Coordination Committee for the Prevention and Control of Covid-19, and indulging in political misconduct during such an unprecedented time further fuelled the spread of the disease.
The internal affairs of the ruling Nepal Communist Party have contorted the required seriousness and attention towards the disease. The introduction of a political party bifurcation bill during such unprecedented times caused the government to spend more time on saving its reign than maintaining its reins over the insidiously spreading Covid-19. Moreover, the border issue with India has further diverted the government's focus from internal health affairs. All these incidences and coincidences with an incompetent High-Level Coordination Committee and poor management of resources are some of the major causes behind the spread of the pandemic in Nepal.
It is not always about resources—even after spending about Rs10 billion to control Covid-19, the situation does not show any improvement—it is about efficient utilisation of the available resources. For example, Bhutan, which also has an open border with India, successfully prevented the disease from entering the country. A country with just over 300 doctors serving the entire population, just one ICU expert at the Ministry of Health, a handful of chest specialists and a few laboratory experts was able to contain infections to only 67 with no deaths so far. This is the result of coordination among the government, public and other stakeholders. It is also important to note that the government has also failed in tracing positive cases and their contacts. The posthumous positive cases show the government’s failure in contact tracing and utilisation of the available resources.
The government has no clue about how to ease daily economic activities and the life of the people amid the stiff economic catastrophe brought about by this outbreak. Recently, the government decided to ease the lockdown on a priority basis—opening retail stores, hospitals, private vehicles, government offices and so forth. However, the way positive cases are increasing and public places are becoming careless and fearless without implementing even primitive preventive measures, it seems like opening is the only plan the government has.
A much worrying fact is Prime Minister Oli’s blatant spreading of misinformation. At a time when the public in rural sections is in a very vulnerable situation, downplaying Covid-19 by a responsible person like the prime minister could lead to people taking it lightly and disobeying preventive measures. It is no coincidence that when Prime Minister Oli suggested taking turmeric powder as a medicine for the disease—when the world’s best research labs have not been able to find a cure—the Health Ministry spokesperson was reading out Nepal’s highest single-day new cases of more than 600.
In the current situation, such presumptuous behaviour by the prime minister is more dangerous than the virus itself. The prime minister had initially said that lockdown was the only tool to control the spread, but he remained reluctant to implement appropriate management of migrants and quarantine facilities in the country. Now, he is on the verge of repeating the same mistake by spreading misinformation about the disease. Let us not forget that government agencies, be it the High-Level Coordination Committee for the Prevention and Control of Covid-19 or the Corona Crisis Management Committee, have failed in every way possible.
Therefore, the current need is to start discussions and encourage coordination, not promote pseudoscience and spread baseless information. Even if businesses are allowed to open, preventive measures such as social distancing, wearing masks in public places and providing hand sanitisers have to be implemented. To make these measures effective, the need is to win public sentiments and make them more responsible in the effort to remove the plague from the nation. This requires the government to communicate the importance of every programme and strategy to the public.
It may be necessary to hold detailed discussions with every sector of the economy about easing lockdown restrictions and intensifying tests throughout the country. If the government still decides to do it with its inefficient channels and keeps mishandling the crisis by ignoring public sentiments and the suggestions of experts, loosening lockdown restrictions could invite another nasty disaster.
Bist is a Kathmandu-based freelance researcher and writes on finance, economics and socio-political matters.