Oli administration’s decision on Covid tests and treatment breaches social contractAs social media users call for not paying taxes, analysts say the government is shirking its fundamental duty and running away from its constitutional obligations.
Anil Giri & Arjun Poudel
A day after the Ministry of Health and Population said that people themselves need to pay for Covid-19 tests and treatment costs if they are infected, Nepalis on Monday took to social media to chide the administration, wondering why citizens should pay tax to the government if it cannot ensure their fundamental right.
Health Ministry spokesperson Dr Jageshwor Gautam on Sunday said that the government will pay for Covid-19 tests and treatment for only those who are financially poor and for frontline workers, inviting widespread criticism.
“I just said what the Cabinet has decided,” Gautam told the Post on Monday. “As per the Cabinet decision, people have to pay for tests and treatment charges both in private and government hospitals.”
A Cabinet meeting on October 5 had decided to perform tests and provide treatment free of cost to only those who cannot afford to pay.
According to Gautam, the government would provide free tests and treatment to only the poor, single women, disabled people, frontline health workers, security personnel and cleaning staff. He said that tests would be performed only if they develop coronavirus symptoms.
As per the new decision, even state-run health facilities have started charging seriously ailing patients who are admitted to hospitals for tests.
Human rights activist Gauri Pradhan through a Facebook post called on the government not to turn its back in the time of a public health emergency.
“The government should rather seek support from the public. We are ready to support,” wrote Pradhan.
Some Twitter users made a public call not to pay tax to the government.
“If the government cannot do anything for the people then why should the people pay taxes,” wrote one twitter user.
The decision is facing criticism even more as the country has seen an exponential rise in Covid-19 cases in the past few months, largely because the government’s response to the virus was poor and then it gave up on its fight against the pandemic.
As of Monday, 136,036 Covid-19 infections have been confirmed nationwide. Of them, 118,042 infections and 717 deaths have been confirmed since July 22, a day after the government decided to end the nationwide lockdown after four months. A total of 17,994 cases and 40 deaths were registered until July 21.
The number of active cases stands at 40,778. The death toll has reached 757.
“Why pay taxes if we don’t get the basic service? THEN let’s not pay the Ministers, Members of Parliament their Dashain Allowance (sic) or house rent or other commodities (After all they are our employees)” wrote another social media user.
Some on social media were critical of the government for using taxpayers’ money for the treatment of political leaders including the prime minister, who recently underwent a second kidney transplant surgery.
“The Prime Minister whose life was saved using the tax money collected from the people should not have said that there will be no treatment during a pandemic at least,” another Twitter user wrote.
The calls for not paying tax may remain limited to social media, as such statements come as an expression of anger, but the larger issue is how the government has spectacularly failed, analysts say.
“What we are seeing today are signs of how the state is failing its people,” said Bishwambhar Pyakuyrel, an economist and former ambassador. “How can the government shirk its fundamental duty and constitutional obligations?”
Article 35 (1) of the constitution says every citizen shall have the right to free basic health services from the state, and no one shall be deprived of emergency health services.
According to analysts, instead of addressing people’s woes and protecting them, the government is asking them to fend for themselves, which is an irresponsible act. A government’s legitimacy can also be determined by how taxes are raised and spent, they say.
“This is an obvious and natural call if people are saying they should not pay tax to the government,” said Hari Roka, a political economist. “If the government cannot provide healthcare services, education and employment to the people, then why should the people pay tax?”
People pay taxes because the governments need money for the programmes for health, education, infrastructure and other services to achieve the common goal of a prosperous, functional and orderly society. While money raised by the state from the people in revenues pays for public goods and services, tax is also a key component in the social contract between citizens and the government.
“The government has failed on economic, political, cultural and social fronts,” said Roka. “There is no alternative for the Nepal Communist Party to bid farewell to KP Sharma Oli as the prime minister.”
The government’s latest decision on Covid-19 tests and treatment is also against the Public Health Act-2018 introduced by the incumbent government.
Sub-clause 4 (c) of Clause 3 of the Public Health Service Act-2018 states: “Every citizen shall have the right to obtain free basic health services under the following headings, as prescribed: Service relating to communicable disease.”
A minister told the Post that the new decision on tests and treatment has put the government in the soup.
“The proposal actually was not discussed in depth at the Cabinet meeting,” said the minister who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This decision has put the government in a fix. It is going to hamper the government’s image.”
The decision is also in violation of a recent Supreme Court ruling. The Supreme Court on October 1 directed the government to ensure free tests to all seeking services both at private and government health facilities.
“As Covid-19 is an infectious disease, and as per the legal provision, everyone has the right to get free diagnosis and treatment,” the court observed.
Public health experts say that the government’s new decision does not help in containing the pandemic. It will exacerbate the problem instead, as the rate of infections and deaths is likely to rise.
“If the people have to pay on their own, most of them will not seek tests even if they have symptoms. Many will seek treatment only if they get serious,” Dr Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, told the Post. “This is not a wise decision and it does not help in containing the virus spread.”
Incidentally, while the government is failing in the fight against the pandemic and saying it won’t treat patients, it has decided to run the electric crematorium at Pashupati 24 hours a day.
“The manpower will be managed by the Ministry for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation,” said Minister for Communication Parbat Gurung, also the government spokesperson, while making public the Cabinet decisions on Monday. “The government has also decided to install another hybrid crematorium there for which the Finance Ministry will manage the necessary financial resources.”
Dr Mingmar Gyelgen Sherpa, former director general at the Department of Health Services, said that if the new decision on testing and treatment is implemented, it will mean a serious blunder.
“If the government lacks the budget to contain the virus spread, conduct tests and treat, it can use money meant for other programmes, which has been unused,” said Sherpa. “Protecting the lives of the public should be the government’s priority. A government is needed for the collective good… its job is to protect its citizens.”