Officials shut their ears to experts on Covid-19A group of experts has been trying to meet Prime Minister Oli for seven months to brief him on best practices, but to no avail.
The government simply does not listen. That is a complaint that has been heard again and again. In this time of the pandemic, experts that have been to Baluwatar have often said that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli acts like he is listening, but suggestions are hardly ever followed. If anyone is outspoken, the person is often barred from giving suggestions.
A group of experts with degrees from top universities of the United States and Australia and have experience working on epidemics have been trying to meet the prime minister for the last seven months, but to no avail.
“Through his advisers, we have been trying to meet him since April but have not succeeded,” Dr Prabhat Adhikari, infectious disease and critical care expert told the Post. “We were given an appointment with the prime minister thrice, but cancelled the meeting at the last minute every time.”
Other experts in the group include an epidemiologist, an expert on management economy, information technology expert and they believed that the prime minister would listen to the experts and give them a few minutes to put forth their suggestions.
“We have made some recommendations to contain the spread of infection epidemiologically, managing the economy during the pandemic and the importance of the use of technology to deal with it,” said Adhikari. “We had also incorporated suggestions from Dr Sanjeev Sapkota, who serves at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Advisors, instead, told them that the prime minister is well aware of the coronavirus, which is not a big deal and can be gotten rid of by drinking hot water with turmeric.
The next day Prime Minister Oli repeated the same thing in Parliament that the disease can be kept at bay by drinking “turmeric water.”
“Just sneeze and chase the virus away,” Oli had said, addressing Parliament.
Most of the advisors to the prime minister, including his physician Dr Dibya Sing Shah, have been in isolation due to the infection of Covid-19.
As of Sunday, 144 people serving at the Prime Minister’s official residence in Baluwatar, including security personnel from Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and Nepal Police, have tested positive for the virus.
Another expert, who does not want to be named, said that the prime minister is saying the same things, what is being fed to him by his close people and advisors.
But the experts have reliable, science-based and proven ways to help check the spread of the virus.
According to Adhikari, his team had made detailed plans from testing to contact tracing, hospital management, economic management, and taking the help of technology in dealing with pandemic to suggest to the prime minister.
There are several ways to increase testing by reducing current test costs by using US Food and Drug Administration approved kits and technology, said Adhikari.
For example conducting direct polymerase chain reaction tests, which does not need viral transport media or RNA extraction kits and machines, he said.
“Costs will come down drastically, and three times more tests can be performed for the same price when those viral transport media, RNA extraction kits and machines are not needed. Further, results will come within two hours,” Adhikari said.
There is also loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) technology, which does not even require biosafety level-2 lab and tests can be done in the field. The team had also helped to develop “covidnp” app to assist in the contact tracing of the infected people, which was launched in May but has not been used by the Health Ministry.
“We also wanted to tell the prime minister that the rapid diagnostic tests, which the government was preparing to use then, could give misleading reports,” another expert of the team said asking not to be named. “But some people in his close circle were adamant about using rapid diagnostic test kits purchased through Omni Business Corporate International.”
The rapid diagnostic test was controversial not only because of the alleged corruption when the government procured the test but also medically. A lot of people, who were tested negative in a rapid diagnostic test later found infected with coronavirus, after reaching their homes.
As of Monday, 89,263 people throughout the country tested positive to Covid-19 with 554 deaths. In the last 24 hours, 2,440 people tested positive, including 1,531 in the Kathmandu Valley. The Ministry of Health and Population said that 19 people had died of the infection on Monday.
It is not only in the Prime Minister’s Office that the culture of following the advice of experts is missing. The story is a similar one in the Ministry of Health and Population, which has been leading the fight against the pandemic in the country.
Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal’s advisers and officials at the Health Ministry not only underestimated the risk of pandemic saying that the infection would be contained within double digits but also harassed government scientists speaking about the risks of the disease.
The Health Ministry had sought clarification with Dr Sher Bahadur Pun for speaking out in the media and publishing articles cautioning the authorities to not rely solely on rapid diagnostic tests.
Dr Bhagwan Koirala, chairman of Nepal Medical Council, who used to be invited at the Health Ministry’s discussion sessions, said that he too had suggested a number of ways to lower the costs of polymerase chain reaction tests some four months ago, but his suggestions were ignored.
“When I realised that my suggestions are not taken seriously, I stopped going for the meetings they convened,” Koirala told the Post. “But now the exact thing that we feared has happened. Infections are growing at an exponential rate. But authorities are clueless about how to handle it.”
Experts say there is a reason experts are not listened to.
“Why would they listen to experts, when the pandemic has become like an opportunity to make money for some officials,” said Dr Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa, an epidemiologist.