Inaction, thy name is governmentOld excuses won't cut it anymore; the government needs to immediately act in four critical areas to counter the effects of Covid-19.
KP Oli, in addition to his prime ministerial duties, has been occupying two key portfolios: finance and communication. Both of these ministries were headed by his trusted lieutenant Yubaraj Khatiwada, who was ousted from the Cabinet four weeks ago as he failed to get his term renewed as a member of the Upper House of the federal parliament. Amidst the deepening Covid-19 crisis and ensuing economic hardships, the inevitability and importance of minute-by-minute engagement of these ministries can hardly be overemphasised. The Finance Ministry is not only required to sanction several emergency procurements with very short notice but also needs to keep a close eye on productivity and unemployment in the economy. Similarly, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology that sits at the centre of internet and connectivity regulation is equally critical as demand for online services has exponentially risen since the novel coronavirus limited the movement and contact of the people.
For the last several months, Oli was unable to visit his office in Singha Durbar. Decision-making in the entire government, including the added ministries, has, thus, been completely stalled. The prime minister certainly has a fear of possible infection, owing to his precarious health. Also, his megalomaniac sense of being imperially powerful has prevented him being accessible even to those who matter in the day-to-day governance of the country. Instead, he has created a modus operandi to make them come through a very small coterie of people that surround him. Apart from finance and communication, the ministers of health and education also appear lost for the lack of enough and direct interaction with the prime minister. This has thrown the entire scope of the pandemic management into complete mayhem.
Missing the mark
The containment of the spread of the novel coronavirus, and providing access to treatment to those infected by it, must be the sole mission of the government. But the government is horribly fumbling and bugling its public duties. Policy inconsistencies, overlap of authority and, above all, irresponsibility have shown the public the government’s inhuman face. Media coverage of a large number of people sleeping overnight on the pavement in front of the country's only infectious disease hospital at Teku, awaiting their turn for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests exposes the government's lack of preparedness. The gathering of such a large crowd without social distancing and personal protection in the premises of the infectious disease hospital is in itself extremely risky.
The government has announced that it will no longer carry out PCR tests on those not exhibiting symptoms. This means, the government has completely abandoned the practice of contact tracing and is unwilling to support those vulnerable sections of the society for whom PCR test reports have now become a pass to enter into their rented apartments and to rejoin their places of work. The government machinery, including the local governments and district administrations, have not even bothered to remind the landlords, employers and travel operators, among others, not to pressurise their tenants, employees or customers for PCR tests. During the last six months, the government has barely added hospital facilities with an adequate number of intensive care units and ventilators aimed at those infected with SARS-CoV-2. A deeper problem of social disintegration and intolerance to certain communities need separate and systematic inquiries before they boil down to a new social menace. Instilling a sense of national awakening that a majority of Nepalis have no option but to learn to live with the virus even after a cure or vaccine is discovered, exactly like having low access to PCR tests now, is another important duty that the government is shirking away from.
Scope of digitisation
The government, despite newly emerging insights and possibilities, has failed to adopt coherent policies to support two key sectors: digitisation and education. A sturdy and commonly accessible digital infrastructure is now unquestionably becoming a sine qua non for everything, from online education, e-commerce, e-banking to the price exploration of their products by farmers in remote locations. When anxiety over the economic revival increases every passing day, making the internet free for all could greatly boost economic activities. Understandably, the government and the internet service providers could be apprehensive of losing a large chunk of revenue by doing so, but overall economic benefits to the nation far outweigh the loss they might incur. The only need would be to change their business model in sharing the benefits. Even if making it a free public good were not an immediate possibility, selective priorities could be set and implemented in a phased manner. For example, as the first step, only Zoom or Google Meet platforms can be made available freely to facilitate about 8 million students to restart their stalled learning. Providing free WiFi in densely populated areas can be another game-changer.
In the education sector, it is now high time to adopt different strategies for adult students who are aware of the risks of the virus and are capable of taking care of their own healthcare needs and for those kids in primary and middle schools. The government's failure to evolve the pedagogy, structure and curriculum of grade 12 students for so long is criminal, to say the least. This is due to the broken dialogue between the prime minister and the minister for education.
Apathy and inaction
Except for cynical apathy and lack of interest to act, there is no reason why the federal government cannot take countercyclical measures at least in four critical areas to contain the spread of coronavirus infections, reactivate economic activities, increase digital access for trade and education, and save the academic calendar of at least secondary and tertiary level students. Generally perceived financial resource crunch is no longer the bottleneck. Recently released data shows that about Rs200 billion is lying idle, unspent, in the government coffers. Foreign exchange reserves, thanks to reduced consumption of imported goods due to the lockdown, has reached a record high at $12 billion and, despite hardships, migrant workers continue to send substantial amounts of remittances (Rs92 billion the month of Shrawan alone) to their families.
The only problem at present is the lack of political will in the ruling party to divert the attention from the politics of self-interest to the national interest. The never-ending story of differences within the ruling Nepal Communist Party cannot always be an excuse for the government’s miserable performance, particularly not during such a deadly pandemic.