Managing Covid-19 the local level wayA pro-active and responsible local leadership can produce effective results with far-reaching implications.
The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the world, and Nepal is not an exception. As of Tuesday, September 21, Nepal has recorded a total of 786,577 cases and 11,053 deaths. For a nascent federal democratic republic, the pandemic posed multi-level governance challenges. The pandemic appeared as a litmus test for the newly formed provincial and local governments to prove their mettle even as the public debates on the utility of federalism itself. While there is a dominant view that the new administrative system has fostered localised response and even supported national-level decision making, sceptics point out the governance failures due to the confusion created by multiple power centres. Allegations of bribery and corruption at both the federal and the local levels made the headlines. However, the local levels came nowhere to the federal level when it came to financial irregularities.
The federal government has exhibited an apparent eagerness to bypass the sub-national governments in crisis management for the longest time. Amidst this scenario, a majority of the policy decisions have been made by the federal government, while the provincial and the local governments have only been expected to implement those decisions. With an aim to steer the pandemic response, the erstwhile Oli government formed the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) led by the deputy prime minister, replacing the 11-member High-Level Coordination Committee (HLCC). However, the sub-national governments were deliberately excluded from the process, and no representation of the provincial and local tiers was arranged in the decision-making mechanism of the central policy apparatus. However, notwithstanding the neglect by the centre, local governments fared better in handling the pandemic-induced crisis.
Under a hostile environment characterised by the duplication of functions and communication breakdowns, the ill-equipped local governments emerged at the forefront of the pandemic response. The centre continued to send quarantine guidelines as well as various other directives to the local level without consulting the stakeholders at the ground as to whether the directives could be implemented well. Even the relief funds were not decentralised; for instance, the Prime Minister's Relief Fund has not been disbursed at the local level. The centre's decision to empower the chief district officers in combating the virus drew flak. Some local governments showed no interest in following administrative orders related to travel ban and mobility restrictions.
In the absence of a new pandemic act, the Covid response has been primarily guided by the Infectious Disease Act 1964, the provisions of which have primarily become incompatible with the new federal setup. Under the present constitution, the local governments are entrusted with 22 kinds of rights, including the exclusive right for primary healthcare and sanitation (Article 57). However, the constitution is silent on the devolution of powers related to pandemic response and management. In this scenario, local governments formulated their own laws based on the constitutional mandate, declared a public health emergency, and activated their disaster management committees. On the one hand, the local governments are overburdened with tasks related to crisis response; on the other, they have limited resources and decision making authority to manage the situation, be it the case of holding centres or quarantine management.
Having said that, a body of research on Nepal’s local government response to the pandemic shows that local governments have been pretty innovative in handling the crisis, ranging from the management of returnee migrants at the quarantine and isolation centres to the mobilisation of a unit action team to record, recognise, regulate and report about the locals affected by the coronavirus to the establishment of food banks to help the poor. During the first wave of the pandemic, four municipalities, namely Bheri Municipality of Jajarkot, Simta Rural municipality of Surkhet, Siranchowk Rural Municipality of Gorkha and Limchungbung Rural Municipality of Udayapur, were seen to effectively mobilise volunteers comprising health workers, security personnel, local residents and representatives from the municipality under the unit action team.
Local governments played an instrumental role in implementing the testing and tracing guidelines of Covid management. With a growing demand for test kits, some local governments purchased these kits out of their own resources, manifesting moral leadership. Be it the case of mask production at the local level or pamphlets and brochures to raise awareness among the locals. Local governments set high standards. For instance, the Chhatradev Municipality of Arghakhanchi took a leading role in mobilising locally available resources to produce masks and sanitisers. This also helped the local community generate income.
Moreover, some local governments, including Helambu Rural Municipality and Phedikhola Rural Municipality, offered door to door medical services to the elderly population suffering from non-Covid diseases in their respective municipalities. Some municipalities offered agricultural ambulance services to help market goods produced by locals. Despite the scarcity of funds and human resources, many local governments maintained quarantine centres with proper food and sanitation facilities. Where the centre failed, local governments continued to support the people. In fact, local governments have proved the vitality of devolved governance for effective crisis response. What has become evident through these success stories is that a pro-active and responsible local leadership can produce an effective result with far-reaching implications.