Government decision to bring in the Nepal Army to procure medical equipment draws flak from all quartersWhile armies are often mobilised across the world in times of crises, analysts say that the Army should not be handed a task that civilian bodies are capable of carrying out.
Anil Giri & Binod Ghimire
The KP Sharma Oli government’s decision to rope in the Nepal Army to procure medical equipment necessary to combat the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum that the national defence force is getting increasingly politicised and is losing its identity as a neutral national institution.
Although government officials have said that the decision to allow the Nepal Army to conduct a government-to-government deal to procure medical equipment was taken on Sunday, at least two ministers in Oli’s Cabinet told the Post that the decision was taken on Thursday, after the fiasco involving the Health Ministry’s procurement process.
The Health Ministry had awarded a tender to a private company to procure medical equipment worth more than $10 million from China but the process of awarding the tender had been widely criticised and concerns had been raised over the quality of the Chinese-made material. In the ensuing controversy, the Health Ministry decided to annul the tender, leading to a critical shortage of medical equipment.
The decision might have been made on Thursday but it was taken without the knowledge of the entire Cabinet, according to the two ministers who both professed ignorance on the matter.
“It seems the prime minister was unconvinced that any private firm can procure medical equipment when the entire world is suffering from a shortage of medical equipment,” one of the ministers told the Post. “Oli was upset with the manner in which the Health Ministry was functioning, so he seems to have concluded that there is no alternative besides assigning the responsibility to the Nepal Army.”
Oli instructed Chief Secretary Lok Darshan Regmi to include the decision to bring in the Nepal Army as taken by the Cabinet and write to the Ministry of Defence accordingly.
The Nepal Army confirmed that it had received a letter from the Ministry of Defence to move ahead with the procurement of medical equipment under a government-to-government deal.
Nepal Army Spokesperson Brigadier General Bigyan Dev Pandey said Army headquarters has received a letter from the Ministry of Defence to procure medical equipment from the most feasible market on an immediate basis on Thursday. The procurement modality will be worked out by Friday afternoon, he said.
But the decision of the Oli government to involve the Nepal Army in yet another task that is outside of its mandate as the national defence force has attracted controversy, as leaders from both the ruling and opposition parties, and a former army chief, have all strongly opposed the decision.
Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai took to social media to strongly oppose the decision.
“The virus cannot be killed by guns or bullets. So why did the government move the Army forward to bring medical equipment from China ? Aren’t there civilian bodies that work in the field of commerce and supplies? Why wasn’t a G2G deal instituted earlier? Is this because the Army does not come under the purview of the CIAA [Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority]?” Bhattarai said.
The Oli government’s decision has drawn flak from members of the ruling Nepal Communist Party itself.
On Friday, Bishnu Rijal, a central committee member and deputy chief of the party’s international department, said that it was not wise to give such a responsibility to the army.
“It is not the job of the Nepal Army to buy medical equipment during a pandemic,” Rijal writes on social media. “Since Nepal Army does not fall under the purview of the CIAA, the deal can benefit both the army and whoever took the decision, but it will weaken the institution.”
Article 267 (1) of the Constitution states that the Nepal Army will work to ensure Nepal’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity. However, Article 267 (4) allows the Nepal government to mobilise the Nepal Army for “development works, disaster management, and others” provided that a federal law is drafted.
But in recent times, the Nepal Army’s mandate appears to have increased to include numerous areas, including construction, commercial business, land plotting, and petroleum sales. Since 2017, the Army has been constructing the Kathmandu-Tarai expressway, even though it has no expertise or experience in building infrastructure. Similarly, last year, the government authorised the national defence force to build houses for around 900 families who fell victim to tornadoes in Bara and Parsa districts. The Army has for years been operating fuel pumps, schools and medical colleges. Recently, it also started selling bottled water and operating department stores.
This expansion has worried many political analysts and even former Army officials, who see the defence force’s neutrality as slowly eroding.
“Is the medical sector part of the Army’s expertise?” Indra Adhikari, a security analyst and author of a book on the Nepal Army, told the Post. “This move will only tarnish the image of both the government and the Army.”
According to Adhikari, the government has set a wrong precedent by placing its trust in the military over civilian agencies, as it undermines the democratically elected government.
The decision to allow the Nepal Army to procure the supplies could only have been justified if the government declared an emergency, said Purna Man Shakya, a commentator on constitutional matters.
National armies are often mobilised across the world during times of crises or during disasters but experts say that the army should not be given a task that a civilian body is capable of carrying out.
“The fact that procurement was handed to the Army without proper discussion suggests that there are certain interests behind the decision,” Bipin Adhikari, a constitutional expert and a former dean of the Kathmandu University School of Law, told the Post. “This move is not well-intentioned as accessing information about the procurement process will not be so easy once it goes into the hands of the Army.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 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 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 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.