Silent at the topDuring times of crisis, clear information from the government is reassuring—especially from the very top.
The Covid-19 outbreak in the country has reached Level 2, meaning that there has been at least one reported case of local transmission. The measures taken to stop the spread of SAR-CoV-2 have obviously not been entirely effective. While the lockdown has enforced strict social distancing, the lack of rapid and mass testing, along with the lack of effective contact tracing of the confirmed cases, has meant the current situation still holds many unknowns. But even as the lockdown got extended, and has been extended until at least April 15, the government’s plans seem to be developing on the spot, with no proper procedures, limits and contingencies drawn up.
It may be true that the government does have some effective scheme in mind. After all, it has charged Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ishwor Pokhrel with heading the High-Level Committee for the Prevention and Control of Covid-19. Yet, the public does not see it. All that the people can see is the government pursuing extensions on the lockdown while stocks in local shops start to dwindle and daily wage workers continue to wonder when and where their next meal is going to come from without regular work. The middle class too, will soon have to rely on savings.
The problem is not the lockdown itself, which is essential to stop the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. Only with a staggered spread, like the one currently being seen in Nepal, can the health system sustain treatment and not be overwhelmed. The problem here is a lack of information. Ever since March 20, when Prime Minister KP Oli himself addressed the nation about the measures the government has been taking, information from the government, and especially the prime minister, has been minimal. And, despite talks of Oli addressing the country after the second extension was announced on April 6, this failed to occur.
In fact, as if to shield the government from further embarrassment, the last high-level address information regarding the government’s decision inexplicably came on from President Bidhya Devi Bhandari—the largely ceremonial, ideally non-political head of state—on April 3. That President Bhandari had to step in to defend the government, drawing rightful criticism, shows the state the government is in.
With Oli having undergone a life-saving kidney transplant on March 4 (his second), it was naturally expected that he would need to ease back into his executive role. However, the people he has left in charge have been underwhelming at best—the government’s entire response has been criticised for being ineffective. Moreover, having been caught in an alleged corruption scandal involving, of all things, the procurement of necessary equipment needed to combat Covid-19, the cabinet further botched its chance at goodwill.
Instead of moving to become more transparent with purchases at such a crucial time—Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal and Pokhrel themselves having had their hands caught in the cookie jar—the cabinet attempted to push the responsibility of buying the required equipment to the Army, which lies outside the mandate of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
In such times of crisis, the people look up to their representatives and the head of government for guidance and reassurance. While leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar have been lauded for providing effective guidance, even leaders that have been criticised for weak, late or misguided responses, such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump, have at least been addressing their people directly. Johnson, in fact, has been doing so even when suffering from Covid-19.
Prime Minister Oli needs to directly inform the country at regular intervals of the progress being made, and the plans that have been drawn up. If he is too ill to do so himself, he needs to appoint an appropriate spokesperson who has decision-making capability. Moreover, the information needs to be transparent and clear on all provisions. Otherwise, the people may not accept the terms of a lockdown for long.