Customise pandemic responseThe government must devolve power to respond to the pandemic effectively.
The Supreme Court's order last week directing the government to evaluate prevailing legislations on epidemics, and enact a new pandemic act has brought some respite for public health experts who have long been complaining that the existing legal framework is too outdated to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. The government's response to the pandemic has been haphazard at best as it has remained unsure about its next step since day one of the lockdown. Over two phases of the stay-home order, the government has failed to come up with a specific answer as to how it intends to handle the problems that come with the pandemic and the lockdown, or even who exactly is responsible for addressing them. The concern among public health experts and the general public, that the imposition of one prohibitory order after another under the Panchayat-era Infectious Disease Act 1964 may not address the pandemic holistically, is thus not unfounded.
Add to this the concern by the apex court that the current pandemic law is insufficient to deal with the multiple issues surrounding the pandemic, we have our answer: The government must pull up its socks to ensure that its response to the pandemic is not based on an ill-thought-out law of a bygone era that does not even recognise the socio-political conditions of the country today. The Act in question does not envision contemporary Nepal's federal structure that envisions the devolution of state power when it says that the government of Nepal—by which it means a centralised power structure system that precedes federalism—may designate an official to make arrangements to root out or prevent any infectious disease.
The Act further specifies that the chief district officer (CDO) 'shall have the powers to try and settle cases on offences committed under this Act'. In effect, what the Act does is empower the CDO to act as the coercive authority acting on behalf of the federal government when it comes to responding to the pandemic as if it were a law and order situation. As CDOs continue to decide who gets to step out of their homes and how a district's response to the pandemic is going to be, the federal government and the provinces are seen to be ill at ease with each other at a time when they should be working in tandem. However, the current pandemic is a public health problem that needs to have public health experts calling the shots when it comes to putting up a coordinated and localised fight against the virus.
The very idea of institutionalising federalism is for the separation of powers, and the distribution of authority between the federal government and the provinces. Administrators who represent the federal power are ill-equipped to appreciate the economic, political and social situation of the provinces and local levels. Federalism has been dealt a body blow as chief district officers, and not locally elected governments, are seen deciding whether a particular district or locality is to go under yet another lockdown. As administrators go on imposing lockdowns as if it were the only weapon against the pandemic, the underprivileged and the destitute continue to go to bed on empty stomachs each night. The government must immediately work to clear the current impasse: Act fast to respond to the pandemic with an updated legal apparatus as well as put a bridle on its administrators to ensure that response to the pandemic does not turn out to be brutal on citizens.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 20, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 30,683,828 people with 955,841 deaths and 22,038,587 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,308,041 with 85,619 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 305,031 confirmed cases with 6,415 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 64,122 cases with 411 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.