Unequal footingThe rallying cry of ‘one rule for the people, another for the rulers’ has roused people in various parts of the world.
Former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has long had that unique quality of giving us cause for mirth every so often he opens his mouth, whether in jest or anger. Among his ‘greatest hits would be the crackpot theory postulating the supposed innate ability of Nepalis to withstand irritants like a virus that had otherwise brought the whole world to its knees. We should be thankful that he is now an ex-PM, and we no longer have to contend with Oli-isms that came with the authority of the country’s chief executive.
While the world laughed at Oli, it has all along been quite difficult to shake off the feeling that the joke is actually on us for having foisted someone like him to power and for what lay in store after him. Even as he was cheered away from Baluwatar, we all knew there was nothing to look forward to with the alternatives before us. Oli had to go for the sake of the country and its democratic institutions; not because a saviour was waiting in the wings. How correct that has been proved is now becoming clearer by the day as we head into the third straight year of living under the spectre of Covid-19.
What better demonstration of incompetence can there be than the fact that there remain excess of 10 million vaccine doses in storage across the country? This is at a time when fewer than half the country’s population has received one jab, and the full vaccination rate is 36 percent. Coming close on the heels of an acute shortage of syringes to administer the vaccines, we now have stockpiled vaccinations that will take some three months to dispose of and more if more vaccinations doses are delivered—which is sure to be the case.
Despite warnings from public health officials about the potential risks of a third wave, including direct appeals to the highest levels, there was little done apart from rolling out the rather haphazard vaccination campaign. The government does bandy numbers about vaccination rates, but that is the easy part since those are just figures that can be derived from stock-keeping. It is hardly surprising that the government really has not a clue about who exactly has received the vaccines or what type of vaccine they got—ensuring that everyone within the country has received vaccinations, including the millions without a citizenship certificate—that most essential document that grants eligibility for the shots—is a far cry.
Despite such an abysmal record, the government had the temerity to declare several public services to be off-limits to the unvaccinated is proof that the plan to tackle the current wave of Covid-19 infections is through a series of loosely enforced decrees. That the new rules retained restrictions on entrants from countries where Omicron first appeared but where it is on the wane while those coming from the current hotspots of Europe and the US as well as India can simply walk into the country tells a lot about how out our authorities are always playing catch-up with reality.
Having lived through nearly two years of the pandemic and despite many missteps, including barely disguised instances of massive corruption; and utter disregard for official regulations, it is quite amazing that no one so far has been held accountable in Nepal. Compare that with the continuing outrage in the United Kingdom with how Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his inner circle have been implicated in the gratuitous flouting of the rules they themselves put in place. Starting with a family outing by a now-former adviser in the early days of the global lockdown to the recent revelation that his secretary actually sent out an invitation around the same time for a ‘bring your own booze’ party, Johnson has been on the back foot. One of his own party leaders reported being ‘furious’ that while others were being barred from visiting relatives who were sick or even dying, ‘people in 10 Downing Street were enjoying the sunshine out the back of No 10 and quaffing the booze’.
The rallying cry of ‘one rule for the people, another for the rulers’ has roused people in various parts of the world and heads have indeed rolled. Johnson losing aides left, right and centre is perhaps the most widely reported. But there has been a minister in Ghana and another in Peru who had to quit for breaching Covid-19 protocols. The prime ministers of Slovakia and Mongolia put in their papers over their approaches to the pandemic while health ministers in India, Jordan, Iraq and New Zealand resigned for egregious failures. The last was also under fire for breaking lockdown rules involving family outings. In Austria the health minister left, citing being overworked and making way for someone better suited for the job.
Here, in Nepal, in the middle of a pandemic when everyone had been ordered indoors on pain of penalty, Oli got a trusted lieutenant and a former police chief to enact what appeared to be an amicable abduction of a sitting member of parliament. Yet, there was nary a voice raised in protest about government rules being broken with all the outrage concentrated on the political import of Oli’s machinations. Even the massive loss of lives during the second wave did not see anyone penalised. Just as a couple of days ago, despite the alarming spike in cases driven by Omicron, a host of luminaries from the president to the former king held potentially spreader events to mark Prithvi Narayan Shah’s birth date. We are perhaps too accustomed to the idea of our big shots functioning by their own rules.
Hardly debated, but the phenomenon of different rules for different people has been most evident in the vaccination campaign itself. The then German chancellor, Angela Merkel, famously waited for nearly four months after vaccinations had started in Germany before she herself became eligible due to age. Here, in Nepal, the MPs were among the first to receive the vaccines despite the thousands of more deserving immune-compromised who had to wait weeks for their first shot. The specious justification forwarded then was that MPs are public figures and are likely to be exposed to infections more readily than others. Let alone the fact that such an argument would not cut any ice in a more egalitarian society like Germany's, but if our MPs were to observe the rules like everyone else and follow established protocols, not only would they be protecting themselves but also serving as examples to those very constituents.
Then there is the favouritism the high and mighty indulged in doling out vaccines out of turn. A common enough problem but frowned upon in many places. The health ministers of Ecuador, Argentina and Peru had to resign when they were found out. I guess it would be too much to expect something similar in Nepal since we are likely to have neither a government nor a parliament if everyone involved were to quit. One rule for us…