Oli continues to hold meetings despite his ministers and close aides testing positive for Covid-19The government’s health protocol is applicable to all including the prime minister and he should be in isolation, doctors say.
Even though two Cabinet ministers have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days, Baluwatar has not made anything public with regards to what health protocol
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is following and whether he has been tested for the coronavirus lately.
Oli chaired an in-person Cabinet meeting Monday evening even though the government-declared protocol requires him to observe isolation.
Public health experts and doctors say the protocol calls for everyone to begin the isolation process as soon as they come in close contact with someone whose Covid-19 test result has come out positive.
“The prime minister should stay in isolation and get (re)tested, as a lot of people from his orbit have tested positive,” said Dr Prabhat Adhikari, an infectious disease and critical care expert.
Tourism Minister Bhattarai had attended a Cabinet meeting on Thursday while Education Minister Pokhrel, besides attending the Cabinet meeting, had met the prime minister personally on Friday and Saturday in relation to the talks that were ongoing then with Dr Govinda KC.
“The protocol applies to all, even the prime minister,” said Adhikari. “The government has issued a warning to members of the public saying any infected person will be jailed if they come out of the house. But the prime minister is freely meeting people.”
In recent days, besides chairing Cabinet meetings, Oli has also been participating in the ruling party’s Secretariat meeting. He has also been holding meetings with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the other chair of the Nepal Communist Party.
He met Dahal for around one hour at Baluwatar on Monday and discussed different issues including the no-confidence motion filed against Chief Minister of Karnali Province Mahendra Bahadur Shahi by 18 of the party’s lawmakers.
Members of Oli’s private secretariat, however, said the prime minister need not go into isolation because he has always maintained proper distancing.
“Even if the prime minister talks with an infected person, he does not need to go into isolation because he maintains distance and wears a mask and shoe covers,” said Ram Sharan Bajgain, Oli’s media expert, who himself is in isolation having tested positive for the coronavirus on October 4. “During Cabinet meetings or any other meetings, the prime minister keeps proper distance so he is out of the risk zone.”
Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal was even more blase regarding the need for the prime minister to follow the government’s health protocol.
“All state mechanisms would come to a standstill if the prime minister stopped working fearing the coronavirus,” he told the Post. “What would happen if the doctors and nurses stopped working fearing the virus.”
There are positive cases at the Health Ministry too and that should not mean the ministry should pull down its shutters and the officials stay at home, he said.
Although the prime minister’s personal photographer Rajan Kafle, Chief Advisor Bishnu Rimal, Foreign Affairs Advisor Rajan Bhattarai and Press Advisor Surya Thapa have tested negative, they have not returned to work yet.
“I am not aware of the latest situation at Baluwatar,” said Oli’s press advisor Surya Thapa. “Doctor’s may have collected the prime minister’s swab.”
But from Baluwatar, the customary silence is maintained regarding tests of the prime minister for the coronavirus.
There has also been criticism of the way the mighty and powerful are being repeatedly tested in contravention to the government guidelines on who should be tested.
The prime minister's advisors who tested positive for the coronavirus underwent two polymerase chain reaction tests in five days last week in state-run laboratories, a facility which is not available for the general public.
A source at the Health Ministry said that ministers too have been undergoing regular coronavirus tests. Health workers are being sent to their residence to collect the samples.
“People are deprived of tests despite staying in long queues at state-run hospitals while people in power are being tested for free, which is not only against the protocol but is also misuse of power and state resources,” said an official at the Department of Health Services, who does not want to be named. “Those who cannot afford to pay should be provided free tests and those who can afford should be charged. But the exact opposite is happening here.”
According to the Health Ministry’s updated protocol, (re)test is not required for asymptomatic and mild cases who have completed a 14-day isolation period, including at least 3 days without symptoms.
Even if the law is applicable only to the public, coronavirus does not differentiate, according to doctors.
“The trend to open masks to show faces in the media during meetings and for photos is very risky,” said a doctor who did not want to be identified.
On Friday the Tourism Minister met Indian Ambassador Vinay Mohan Kwatra without wearing a mask and posted the pictures on his twitter account.
Ministers seem to be taking the cue from the prime minister downplaying the danger posed by the coronavirus.
“Like the US president, our prime minister thinks he knows everything and coronavirus is like common flu,” said the doctor. “Had he taken the risks seriously from the beginning, things [in the country] could have been different.”
As of Monday, 111,802 people throughout the country have tested positive with 645 deaths. In the last 24 hours 4,047 people tested positive including 2,283 in Kathmandu Valley.
Dr Baburam Marasini, former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said the prime minister should not take the issue of his health lightly and take proper precautions while meeting people.
“A lot of people who met the prime minister or participated in meetings he convened have tested positive for Covid-19,” said Marasini.
Ruling party leaders have said there could be two reasons behind the prime minister’s decision to avoid isolation.
“Either the prime minister feels his immunity is strong. Maybe his immunity has increased due to his medicines,” said Leelamani Pokhrel, a Standing Committee member. “Or because of his feeling of responsibility towards the state not to let the state mechanism come to a halt. The state cannot remain standstill.”
But given his condition, the fact that he falls under high risk category is accepted by party leaders.
“Any sort of infection could become fatal for him as he is not of the age of Bishnu Rimal and Rajan Bhattarai,” said Ganesh Sah, another Standing Committee member, who is also a former minister for science and technology. “It is his psychology that dominates. He does not listen to anyone.”
The prime minister is 69 years old and had a second kidney transplant in March.
“As the prime minister falls in a very high risk group since he has pre-existing health conditions like being a diabetic, is taking immunosuppressants and is old and a male, he should not hold any [in-person] meetings,” said Adhikari.
According to Adhikari, if the prime minister has to hold meetings, they should be virtual, as polymerase chain reaction test results are not 100 percent accurate and one could contract the virus after being tested as well.
“What I am saying is not a criticism,” said Adhikari, “but fair suggestions from a well-wisher and a citizen.”