Oli peddles mistruths and sidesteps criticism before ParliamentResponding to lawmakers on Wednesday, Oli stated that Nepalis have “stronger immune systems” and refused to furnish details of the Rs10 billion spent fighting Covid-19.
Appearing before Parliament on Wednesday to respond to questions from lawmakers, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli once again peddled in half-truths and misinformation regarding Covid-19 and his government’s response to the pandemic.
At one point, Oli repeated an argument that was going around when Nepal had yet to report a large number of infections—that Nepalis have stronger immune systems.
Opposition lawmaker Gagan Thapa from the Nepali Congress was quick to question Oli’s claims.
“Who has said that Nepalis have greater immunity powers?” said Thapa, asking if there was any scientific basis to Oli’s statement.
Oli was derisive in his reply
“A parliamentarian just asked me who said Nepalis have greater immunity powers,” said Oli. “Could you not hear me? I said it, just a while ago.”
Oli went on to say that a majority of Nepalis breathe fresh air and have ginger, garlic and turmeric as integral parts of their daily diet.
“Those who eat such medicines everyday definitely have better immunity,” said Oli.
Oli is not wholly wrong but his statement is a mischaracterisation. Although ginger, garlic and turmeric are known to have vitamins and antioxidants that can help boost the immune system, there is no scientific evidence that links their consumption with resistance to Covid-19.
Oli has made the immunity claim before. During an address to the nation on May 25, he said that Nepalis would beat Covid-19 with “strong willpower and immunity”.
Despite Oli’s assurances, infections have continued to rise, with over 4,360 cases countrywide, and 15 deaths. When Oli addressed the nation, just over two weeks ago, there were just 600 infections and three deaths.
Sameer Mani Dixit, research director at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal, said it has become clear by now that Oli does not listen to anyone, not even experts.
“He doesn’t understand Covid-19,” Dixit, who was invited last week by Oli as an expert to discuss Covid-19 related issues, told the Post. “We cannot say that Nepalis have better immunity without basing the claim on any study.”
Dixit himself was once a proponent of the argument that Nepalis have stronger immunity. A Nepali Times article quoted him as believing that “people are not getting seriously ill because Nepal is experiencing a less severe strain of the virus, and/or Nepalis do have stronger immune systems.”
“While lack of testing is also a big cause for missing cases, I believe that immunity may be a major player in developing countries. I know this sounds far-fetched, and people will laugh when they hear it, but there is a ‘hygiene hypothesis’,” he said in the article.
Dixit told the Post on Wednesday that his argument was based on the “hygiene hypothesis” and not on people’s food habits, as Oli has suggested.
“It could be possible that our exposure to particular microorganisms have contributed to the development of our immune system,” said Dixit. “It’s still a hypothesis though. But it was not about the kinds of food we eat or the air we breathe.”
Doctors and public health experts, including Dixit, had advised Oli last week to ease the lockdown, increase testing, employ polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests over rapid diagnostic tests (RDT), and refrain from making unsubstantiated claims.
But since then, the Oli government has reduced testing, employed water cannons against protesters demanding the the government employ PCR tests over RDT, and has yet to take a decision on easing the lockdown. Oli hasn’t stopped making unsubstantiated claims either, as was evident on Wednesday.
According to Dixit, Oli needs to internalise the fact that Covid-19 is a disease, not politics, and listen to doctors and public health experts.
“Oli should leave public health to the experts,” said Dixit. “It is unfortunate that the executive head of the country, the main authority to make crucial decisions, is bent on imposing his own ideas. This is a dangerous sign.”
Political leaders and analysts believe that Oli is riding on a combination of defiance, misinformation and nationalism, which is placing citizens at risk and inviting a much larger crisis.
“What the prime minister said today with regards to Covid-19 has once again confirmed that he does not know many things but he does not know that he does not know,” said Thapa. “Instead, he harbors the arrogance and delusion that no one knows more than him. This attitude means that Nepalis are in for more trouble.”
Baburam Bhattarai, a former prime minister and leader of the Janata Samajbadi Party, even went say far as to say that Oli appears to be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, a type of cognitive bias where incompetent people are unable to recognise their own incompetence and end up believing that they are smarter.
“He has been pontificating the same old stuff again and again. It’s a mess in quarantine, there’s a lack of testing, Nepalis returning from abroad are suffering and he says everything is alright,” Bhattarai said on Twitter.
Political analysts say that Oli is using the new map of Nepal to feed his ego and is using nationalist rhetoric to discount every other problem that the country is facing.
“Oli thinks no one can challenge him, as he thinks he has managed to win over everyone with his cartographic nationalism,” political commentator Rajendra Maharjan told the Post. “He thinks that if he can challenge India then why should he listen to the Parliament?”
At Parliament, Oli side-stepped questions regarding financial transparency over the Rs10 billion that the government is reported to have spent so far in the fight against Covid-19.
“Let’s focus on the Covid-19 response now. Every detail of the expenditure will be made public in due course,” he said in response to demands by the Congress’ Thapa that the government furnish a proper breakdown of the money.
Oli also dismissed all allegations of corruption, even though, early in the pandemic, two of his ministers were accused of corruption in the procurement of substandard medical supplies from China.
There is widespread discontent with the manner in which the Oli government has handled the pandemic. The lockdown, which has been in place for over 75 days now, is bleeding the economy, and has even led to a number of deaths, and people are dying of Covid-19 in mismanaged quarantine facilities. Despite lockdown orders, protests have already begun to break out.
But Oli appears oblivious to all criticism, alleging that it is the work of a small section of the media. The prime minister refuses to take criticism while despising the media, say analysts.
“Oli thinks he can say anything he wants and that he is not answerable to anyone, not even to Parliament,” said Maharjan, the political commentator. “He is even undermining the House. This is not a good sign for democracy.”