Health and federalismThe federal government must work in tandem with the provincial and local governments.
Nepalis have spent two weeks under lockdown, and the government just announced an extension of one more week until April 15. As of now, the tally for Covid-19 cases has reached nine. With one case being locally transmitted, the country is now at the second stage of the coronavirus outbreak. Despite all these developments, the government's handling of the pandemic has not been up to the mark. On the one hand, ministers in the Oli government are facing allegations of corruption in the procurement of medical equipment required to fight the virus, and on the other, there’s a lack of clarity as to how the provincial and local governments should have worked.
Much of the problem goes back to the government’s reluctance to decentralise power. Although Nepal has adopted federalism, the Oli led administration has been keen on holding on to power and denying the provincial and local governments their autonomy. The dangers of doing so are now being exposed. Had the government practised federalism and given agency to the provincial and local governments, right now, when there is a problem, there could have been much better coordination and less confusion as to any plan of action. This clarity would, in effect, have helped ease the situation and done much damage control.
On March 26, the provincial government of Karnali had announced establishing Covid-19 isolation wards at Karnali Provincial Hospital in Surkhet, Karnali Academy of Health Sciences in Jumla and Chaurjahari Hospital in Rukum (West). Most patients who have been tested positive are from Sudurpaschim province. The Karnali government even decided to build isolation wards in three hospitals in Surkhet, Jumla and Rukum (West). But owing to lack of funds to set up facilities to test and treat Covid-19, the decision has yet to be implemented.
In Baglung, even after two weeks of lockdown, officials are waiting for equipment to be dispatched from Kathmandu. In Province 2, the provincial government did put up a 250-bed quarantine facility, but reports show that it is ill-equipped to function effectively. There is an acute shortage of protective gear and medical equipment to conduct health check-ups of the quarantined patients. The only protection available are face masks. These are just a few examples. This lack of planning and the reluctance to put local governments in charge of decision-making in their respective areas has worsened the situation.
This crisis should serve as a wake-up call for the government, which has a proclivity towards hoarding power. The importance of coordination and quick decision-making during emergency situations like the one posed by Covid-19 cannot be overstated. Covid-19 has become a global affair, but the response must still be localised. No one knows how to best handle the situation; but if power is decentralised, say even if one policymaker falls short of handling the situation effectively, his or her errors are less likely to have a catastrophic effect on the whole country. The limitations of spending and borrowing pose a similar risk too.
The government must immediately loosen its grip on power and allot funding so that the provincial and local representatives can take the lead in combating the virus without having to wait for the centre’s decision, which is often reactionary in nature.
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