Coronavirus threat reaches government agency formed to fight itThree ministers, including defence minister who leads Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre, in home isolation after a soldier they were exposed to tested positive for the coronavirus.
Tika R Pradhan & Jagadishor Panday
The coronavirus has now reached the agency which is meant to devise strategies to fight it. Three ministers, who are members of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre, have entered home isolation starting Friday after they were exposed to a Nepal Army man who tested positive for Covid-19.
According to Mahendra Prasad Guragain, coordinator at the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) Secretariat, the soldier is believed to have contracted the virus when he was out for a haircut.
As hair salons are located within an enclosed space where hair stylist and customers are in close proximity for more than 15 minutes, there is a high chance of one infected person passing the virus to others. There have been cases of hair salons spreading the coronavirus to a large number of people.
In Nepal when the government initially loosened the lockdown on June 10, hair salons were not allowed to open. Since August 18 midnight, the Valley has been under prohibitory orders, which mean no public and vehicular movements and closure of all non-essential services, including hair salons.
On Sunday, when Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, who is the coordinator of the CCMC, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Health Minister Bhanubhaka Dhakal met at the CCMC Secretariat on the premises of the Army’s Chhauni barracks, the infected Army man had brought tea for them. Chief of Army Staff Purna Chandra Thapa was also present at the meeting.
“We came to know about the virus infection in one of the staff at the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre Secretariat today,” said Deependra Shrestha, personal aide to Pokhrel. “The three ministers who attended the meeting are now in home isolation.”
Covid-19 cases have been rising at an alarming rate, especially after the government lifted the lockdown on July 21.
On Friday, the number of cases in the country soared to 36,456 people. With 12 more fatalities, the highest for a single day, the death toll reached 195.
As many as 927 new cases were reported on Friday across the country and of them 415, or 45 percent–were from Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur.
Mahendra Shrestha, Covid-19 focal person at the Health Ministry, who was also present at Sunday’s meeting, said that the incident has reaffirmed the fact that the virus can reach anywhere and infect anyone. He, however, said that there is no need to panic and that all who were present in the meeting will go for tests on Saturday.
Even when various countries were stepping up measures to fight the coronavirus, Nepali officials were in a denial mode. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his ministers made light of the disease, even declaring that Nepal was a coronavirus-free country.
Two months after the first Covid-19 case was reported, the government decided to set up an agency to deal with the virus. The Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre was formed on March 29, five days after the country went into lockdown, to assist in implementing the decisions taken by the high-level coordination committee led by Pokhrel to fight the virus.
The Cabinet, however, on June 10 decided to dissolve the high-level committee and empowered CCMC to take necessary decisions or make recommendations to the Cabinet like imposing, loosening and lifting of the lockdown, resuming flights and retracting decisions on flights, repatriating migrant workers, and handling the returnees.
The CCMC has 10 ministers, out of 20 full ministers in the Oli-Cabinet, in its directive committee.
The Pokhrel-led centre includes Home Minister Thapa, Health Minister Dhakal, General Administration and Federal Affairs Minister Hridayesh Tripathi, Industry, Commerce and Supplies Minister Lekhraj Bhatta, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada, Agriculture Minister Ghanashyam Bhusal, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, Energy Minister Barshaman Pun and Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai.
Public health experts have long been criticising the government for not including even a single expert in the centre formed to manage the Covid-19 crisis.
Dr Baburam Marasini, former director of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said there seems to be minimal understanding about Covid-19 among the members of the agency whose sole job is to devise strategies to fight the disease.
“The authorities have failed to make people aware and send messages properly,” said Marasini.
Most of the leaders have been visiting places and participating in programmes in the presence of people in huge numbers. Despite asking members of the public to wear masks–the authorities even fine those who do not wear masks–people in power are usually seen without masks or masks pulled down to their chins.
“There is no need to hold meetings with everyone physically present. Officials barely maintain physical distancing and they conduct long meetings,” said Marasini. “They are still continuing to defy the fact that the virus does not spare anyone.”
With three ministers, including the CCMC coordinator in home quarantine, there are also concerns about some immediate decisions if that were to be taken.
“The incident just proves that the virus has dangerously spread into society,” said Ghanashyam Bhusal, minister for agriculture who is also a member of the CCMC. “I hope the authorities will become more serious now and try to hold online meetings instead of being physically present.”
The immediate impact of three ministers’ home isolation has been on the ruling party.
The Nepal Communist Party decided on Friday to postpone its Secretariat meeting scheduled for Saturday. Pokhrel and Thapa are the members in the Secretariat.
Saturday’s Secretariat meeting was supposed to discuss a report submitted by the six-member task force.
“The decision to postpone the meeting was taken after a meeting between the party chairs KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal on Friday,” said Bishnu Sapkota, press coordinator of Dahal.