Even with three committees and marathon meetings, government undecided on lifting lockdownIn response to increasing pressure, the government is looking at three models that aim to completely lift the lockdown by Dashain.
On Tuesday, traders in the Valley decided to reopen shops, saying that they could not take the prolonged lockdown anymore. Police intervened and forced them to close their shutters, saying they had orders from higher authorities.
This has lately become a regular occurrence in the Capital city.
The lockdown enforced since March 24 to contain the spread of Covid-19 entered its 76th day on Tuesday. And pressure is mounting on the KP Sharma Oli government to come up with a modality to ease restrictions so that the economy can reopen and the working class can get back to earning a living.
The government, however, despite holding a series of meetings has failed to come up with any plan on how it plans to ease the lockdown.
On Sunday, the high-level committee to prevent and control Covid-19 held a meeting, also attended by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, for four hours but ended without any conclusion.
Officials familiar with developments say that various committees have presented different modalities to ease the restrictions and the government has yet to decide on one.
When the lockdown was imposed, Nepal had reported just two coronavirus cases and on Wednesday the number of cases crossed 4,000. Fourteen people have died due to Covid-19, most of them in quarantine centres.
Civil society, former bureaucrats and the opposition parties say that the poor handling of Covid-19 has exposed how the Oli administration has completely failed to recognise the threat of the pandemic.
Former Vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission Govinda Raj Pokharel said that the government has totally failed to handle the Covid crisis, failed to find alternatives to the protracted lockdown and the government should provide cash relief for the poor and vulnerable groups.
There are currently three committees mandated to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The high-level committee to prevent and control Covid-19 is led by Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel and includes ministers and senior bureaucrats. The government has also formed the Covid Crisis Management Committee, which is led by the Prime Minister’s Office Secretariat.
Yet another committee formed by the government is a “coordination committee”, led by Chief Secretary Lok Darshan Regmi. This committee coordinates with the various ministries to act in tandem.
Having three committees with their own mandates has meant that each is acting on its own.
‘There is an utter lack of coordination among the state entities,” said Kashi Raj Dahal, a former bureaucrat who keeps abreast of developments within the bureaucracy. “It is clear that our system, including the bureaucracy and the state entities, seriously lacks the strength, resources and capacity to cope with acute crises like Covid-19.”
The three committees have each presented different models to the government to ease the lockdown.
Last week, Pokhrel instructed ministry secretaries to devise an action plan to lift the lockdown completely in three months.
“All secretaries have been told to prepare drafts of a sectoral executive action plan,” Narayan Bidari, member secretary at the high-level coordination committee, had told the Post. “They will present their plans to Deputy Prime Minister Pokhrel on Sunday [June 7].”
None of the secretaries has submitted their proposal.
“We have received several inputs and suggestions from ministers, security agencies and various other stakeholders to ease the lockdown but we have yet to reach a conclusion,” said Bidari. “Since Covid-19 cases are spiking, we have to move very carefully.”
Neither government officials nor ministers have clarified what “moving ahead carefully ” means.
On Tuesday, the primary opposition Nepali Congress demanded answers from the government regarding where Rs10 billion, the amount that has reportedly been spent on fighting Covid-19 so far, had been spent.
“The government says it has bought five PCR machines and 25,000 test kits,” said Gagan Thapa, a Congress lawmaker. “Then it says it has spent Rs10 billion in Covid-19 response. Where was the money spent? We demand an answer from the government.”
Thapa also criticised the Oli administration for the dismal state of quarantine facilities across the country and the delays in testing. Many of the deaths attributed to Covid-19 have taken place in quarantine.
“The prime minister says there are 166,000 people in quarantine. There are thousands of people who have been forced to stay in quarantaine waiting for their test results,” said Thapa. “Are these quarantine centres or concentration camps?”
The National Human Rights Commission too has drawn the government’s attention to its failure to manage basic facilities in quarantine centres and uphold basic human rights.
A minister admitted that pressure is mounting on the government to step up efforts to manage quarantine centres, expand testing and ease the lockdown. The Pokhrel-led committee has prepared three different models but has not been able to come up with one to present to the Cabinet.
“That’s why the prime minister himself was present in the high-level committee meeting on Friday to learn about the different models,” said the minister.
One of the models that is being widely discussed, and was nearly agreed upon, is gradually opening the agriculture sector and small businesses in the first phase, then easing restrictions for private vehicles before allowing public vehicles to operate. According to officials familiar with the matter, this model spans 12 weeks and 10 phases, with the resumption of domestic flights in the last phase.
“We have recommended opening the lockdown in 10 different phases that will last up to Dashain,” said Santa Bahadur Sunar, spokesperson for the Defence Ministry. “Easing of the lockdown will also depend on whether people adhere to safe practices like social distancing.”
But according to Pokhrel, the Planning Commission former vice-chair, it is not just the lockdown that needs to be dealt with.
“There are other equally pressing issues like expanding testing, efficiently managing quarantine centres and providing relief to the poor. The government has completely failed in these areas,” said Pokhrel.
If the government doesn’t act fast, human rights activists are afraid that it might soon have a humanitarian crisis on its hands. Thousands of migrant workers are expected to return to Nepal from abroad and they will need proper quarantine facilities and thousands of tests.
“People are suffering from hunger and many are deprived of necessities. But the government has neither expanded testing nor devised any plan to ease the lockdown, bring citizens home, and improve quarantine facilities,” said human rights activist Indra Aryal. “This government has completely failed to recognise that a humanitarian crisis is looming.”