Leadership of task force formed to fight the pandemic comes into questionCovid-19 Crisis Management Centre needs to be led by experts, not ministers or security personnel, experts say.
As Nepal geared up for its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic last March, the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre was formed.
The deputy prime minister led it.
Last month the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre was reorganised after the Covid-19 Crisis Management Ordinance was issued.
A retired general of the Nepal Army has been appointed to lead it.
The centre led by Balananda Sharma, a former lieutenant general, has a top Health Ministry official, a major general of the Nepal Army, additional inspector general of the Nepal Police, additional inspector general of the Armed Police Force, a joint-secretary of the Home Ministry and a joint-secretary of the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supply as members.
In other words, four of the seven members are from the security forces.
Health experts and retired civil servants have questioned whether a retired soldier is the right person to lead a body formed to fight a devastating pandemic.
“The leadership of a mechanism addressing the health crisis should have come from the health sector. There is a question whether concerns of health professionals will be heard when the army or ex-army man leads the mechanism,” said Dr Binjwala Shrestha, assistant professor at the Department of Community Medicine under the Tribhuvan University Institute of Medicine.
The centre has been authorised to ensure implementation of the provisions of the ordinance, address the issues involving the treatment of Covid-19 patients, implement the action plan for prevention and control of the pandemic, ensure supply of medical goods and equipment, facilitate the mobilisation of resources and direct the government agencies to expand services including isolation centers and holding centres at the border points, among other things.
Dr Padam Bahadur Chand, an epidemiologist who served as chief of the Policy Planning and International Cooperation Division at the Ministry of Health and Population, says not having experts in the committee is going against international practice.
“Every country including the USA, Britain, China, and Germany have appointed epidemiologists or infectious disease experts to lead in the fight against the pandemic but it seems that we do not feel the need for experts,” Chand said.
Sharma and his team have to carry out the directives of the Covid-19 Management Directive Committee, which is headed by the prime minister and has ministers as members.
Sharma was widely lauded for his role as coordinator of the Army Integration Special Committee Secretariat that oversaw the integration of former Maoist combatants, who fought an insurgency from 1996 to 2006 in which some 13,000 people were killed, into the Nepal Army.
Some 1,420 former fighters chose to join the Army when the integration process completed in July, 2013.
“The prime minister appears to have no trust in the political and administrative leadership to control this pandemic and turned to an ex-army general for leadership and involved security agencies prominently,” Dr Aruna Upreti, a public health expert, said. “I think it is the result of the failure of our political leadership as they ignored the advice of public health experts which resulted in a severe health crisis.”
Despite the country facing a public health crisis that has no end in sight, the newly-appointed chief of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre stressed the prominent role that security agencies must play during the present crisis.
“In order to enforce the decision of the government, involvement of the security agencies is key,” said Sharma, the coordinator of the Centre. “As health agencies could not execute their assigned roles without the support of security agencies, involvement of the security agencies became indispensable.”
Given that the government appears to have only one strategy to fight the pandemic—lockdown—security forces are the enforcer.
Kathmandu Valley has been under lockdown since April 29 to fight the second wave of the pandemic and so far it has been extended to June 14.
But with no end to new infections in sight, it is unclear how long the lockdown will go on.
Doctors and public health experts have been saying since day one that contact tracing, testing and isolating are the keys to ending the chain of transmission.
But that has not been done to the extent needed.
On Saturday, Nepal reported 3,540 new coronavirus infections and 68 deaths taking the total tally of infections to 585,100 and the toll to 7,799.
The number of daily new infections and deaths from Covid-19-related complications may have come down from the 8,000-9,000 and around 200 respectively about three weeks ago but most of the country has been under lockdown for some five weeks. Worryingly, the positivity rate continues to be stubbornly high. On Saturday it was 31 percent.
Of the 5,343 antigen tests performed on Saturday, largely in rural parts of the country, 1,502 tested positive—a positivity rate of 28 percent.
“My concern is not that experts from other fields are leading the agency responsible in handling the pandemic but what is concerning is suggestions of the experts are not implemented,” Dr Keshab Deuba a public health epidemiologist, told the Post. “Controlling the pandemic is not as easy as considered. Authorities should have formed a committee of experts to give suggestions and hire experts to lead the fight against pandemic.”
But Sharma feels that given the amount of coordination needed between different ministries the government has sought leadership from outside the bureaucratic machinery to control the pandemic because there is a tendency of one ministry not adhering to instructions of another ministry.
“The involvement of Nepal Army is essential for mobilising the logistics,” he said.
Former bureaucrats argue that given that state machinery is run by a bureaucracy, a bureaucrat should have been given the role to lead the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre.
“I have no reservations about the choice of Balananda Sharma because he is a capable person and has been exposed to crisis management but there is a system of civil administration in the country and the management of the health crisis is being undertaken under this system,” said Shyam Prasad Mainali, a former government secretary. “In a democracy, civil administration remains in charge. It is not logical to say that only the army and police can address a health crisis.”
(Arjun Poudel contributed reporting.)