Oli government's ad-hoc decision-making could cost the people and nation dearly, say observersUncoordinated decisions have long been the hallmark of the Oli administration but during a crisis, such decisions could have serious consequences.
The Ishwar Pokhrel-led committee for the prevention and control of Covid-19 on Thursday made a debacle. Within less than two hours of deciding to allow people to leave the Valley to go back to their homes on Friday and Saturday, a decision that was publicly announced on the Facebook page of the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers, the decision was swiftly reversed and the Facebook page itself disappeared.
Such ad-hoc decision-making has long been the hallmark of the KP Sharma Oli administration, say political observers, and Thursday’s fiasco was just one more link in the chain.
Though Nepal has not reported any more cases of Covid-19 since the tally reached nine last Saturday, going by the unprecedented spread of the coronavirus in various countries, Nepal continues to face a significant threat. The Oli administration, however, still does not seem to be treating the situation with the gravity it deserves, which reflects in the Pokhrel committee’s decisions, say observers.
The lockdown, enforced since March 24, may have helped control the spread of the disease to a large extent, but experts have long said that it’s not the only solution and that the authorities need to put in place multiple measures to fight the pandemic. Apart from technical steps, one key measure is transparency and the free flow of accurate information regarding the efforts the government is making to fight the disease.
At least two senior bureaucrats told the Post that the entire bureaucracy is suffering under the incoherent and inconsistent decisions taken by various ministers in the Oli Cabinet.
“Things have become increasingly difficult for bureaucrats given the manner in which the political leadership has been handling the situation for the last three months,” one bureaucrat told the Post on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. “After all, as members of the ‘permanent government’, we are the ones who have to get into damage control. The political leadership tasked with handling the crisis is inept, with no understanding of the ground reality.”
Thursday’s decision to let people leave the Valley for their homes might not have hurt the government much, as thousands of people are stuck in Kathmandu due to the lockdown and are running out of money, food and essentials.
Those familiar with Thursday’s development said the Pokhrel-led committee had just floated the idea if the lockdown should be lifted for those who want to leave the Valley.
“But before the decision was formalised, the media reported about it,” Narayan Bidari, a secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, told the Post. “For the decision to be formally made, a meeting has to take place and as a member secretary of the Coronavirus Crisis Management Committee, I was supposed to present the agenda at the meeting.”
Bidari said that he was unaware how an issue that was not even discussed in the meeting appeared as a formal decision in the media.
“The Prime Minister’s Office does not even have a Facebook page or Twitter account,” he told the Post.
While Bidari insisted that the Office of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers never had a Facebook page, the page itself was a verified account that regularly posted governmental decisions and updates.
Experts, however, say that decision making in the Oli administration has always been problematic and in such times of crisis, opacity and ad hocism could cost the people and the country dearly.
Since the inception of the Oli government, most of its decisions have been myopic, said Geja Sharma Wagle, a political commentator.
“That’s why several of the government decisions were reversed later,” Wagle told the Post. “One recent incident is the scrapping of a deal with a private company for the procurement of medical equipment. In this [Thursday’s] case too, it is apparent that there’s a total lack of coordination among the government agencies.”
According to Wagle, in the kind of governance system Nepal practises, the buck should stop with the prime minister, but Oli has often feigned ignorance when it comes to criticism that his government encounters.
Oli most recently said that he was unaware of the fiasco involving the government’s procurement deal with private company Omni Business Corporate International, but this is an old tactic the prime minister has resorted to often.
Though the government has entrusted the Pokhrel-led committee with the task of handling all issues related to Covid-19, its performance has been questioned since the very beginning.
The committee lacks experts and there is a large representation of politicians, with around half a dozen ministers.
Even ruling Nepal Communist Party members admit poor handling of the situation by the Pokhrel-led committee.
“There is less work and more publicity stunts by this committee,” a standing committee member of the ruling party told the Post on condition of anonymity. “At a time when the committee should have been working on a war footing and coming up with clear decisions, it is creating an embarrassing situation.”
Government officials say that politicians’ advisors too are making things worse. For one, they lack the understanding and second, they are keen to leak information to the media.
“And we have to take the blame,” said the bureaucrat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Governance is not about quick decisions; it is about informed decisions, and such decisions require adequate homework and coordination with various agencies.”
Ever since the formation of the Oli government, many analysts have questioned the wisdom of the prime minister’s style of working, saying he relies too heavily on a small circle of advisors and favoured ministers.
“Prime Minister Oli has a tendency to work with a close coterie and he trusts only a few people,” said Tara Nath Dahal, chairman of Freedom Forum Nepal, a civil liberty group. “This results in a lack of interaction between Oli, his ministers and party leaders before decisions are made.”
And this lack of coordination manifests in situations like Thursday’s backtracking.
“The nation has been paying the price of Oli’s working style—be it today in a time of crisis or earlier, when the situation was much more conducive for the prime minister to work,” said Dahal.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of June 2, 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 had spread to 213 countries and infected more than 6,321,836 people with 375,657 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 198,140 with 5,608 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 72,460 confirmed cases with 1,543 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 1,811 cases with eight 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.