Without dedicated health, foreign ministers, vaccine purchase will be hit, ex-ministers sayTwo Nepal Airlines flights will bring vaccines from Beijing next week, officials say. But other sources of vaccine are unclear.
After the Supreme Court on June 22 ruled that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli led a caretaker government and the Council of Ministers could not be expanded, the Cabinet at present has just five ministers including Oli.
Among many ministers, Sher Bahadur Tamang, who had been appointed health minister on June 4, lost his job.
The charge of the Health Ministry was given to Minister for Education and Technology Krishna Gopal Shrestha. Shrestha also heads the Forest and Environment; and Labour, Employment and Social Security ministries.
The question, therefore, according to observers, is how much time Shrestha will be able to devote to the Health Ministry as the country is battling a deadly second wave of the coronavirus in which some 6,000 people have lost their lives.
Former ministers say it would be extremely difficult to carry out the work, follow up and take necessary decisions in the absence of dedicated ministers.
“We have to fight the pandemic, we have to procure vaccines and a meticulous follow-up led by a dedicated minister is needed in this height of the pandemic,” Tamang, the outgoing health minister, told the Post.
On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported 1,857 new cases and 33 deaths from Covid-19 related complications. The total number of infections stands at 640,662 of which 31,368 are active cases. The total death toll since the pandemic began last year is now 9,145.
It is not only the Ministry of Health and Population but also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is involved in the procurement of vaccines.
But there is no foreign minister either.
Prime Minister Oli himself is looking after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Raghubir Mahaseth, who had been appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister on June 4, also lost his job. The Supreme Court had invalidated two Cabinet expansions by Oli after the dissolution of the House of Representatives on May 21, relieving 20 ministries of their responsibilities.
Oli is also looking after the Ministry of Defence besides battling his political future as the hearing on the House dissolution is going on in the Supreme Court.
There is already a warning of a possible third wave of the pandemic. According to experts, the virus can be brought under control only with vaccinations.
According to the data of the Health Ministry, as of Thursday 2,604,866 individuals, or 8 percent of the population, had taken the first dose of the vaccine and 756,602, or 2.6 percent, had taken the required two doses.
Efforts to procure more vaccines have not been successful. Nepal needs to inoculate 72 percent of its people, who are over the age of 15.
The absence of ministers will be felt in the vaccine procurement too.
A government secretary told the Post that political leadership is essential in dealing with several cross-cutting issues and therefore a dedicated minister is needed.
“We need to take issues to the Cabinet, need to defend the proposals but a secretary is not allowed to attend the meeting,” he said on condition of anonymity. “In the absence of dedicated ministers, there will definitely be problems in running any ministry.”
The foreign and health ministers are also members of the Covid-19 Directive Committee that the prime minister heads.
According to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Ordinance-2021, the job of the committee is to ensure the effective control, prevention and treatment of Covid-19.
Nepal has received slightly more than three million Covid-19 vaccines under grant assistance from China, India and the Covax facility of the United Nations.
“We have made some tangible progress in procuring vaccines from India, China and the United States,” Tamang told the Post. “If needed, ministers should travel to clinch deals or need to follow up with our ambassadors, foreign diplomats, hold meetings with foreign representatives and vaccine manufacturing companies.”
At present the government is in the process of procuring four million vaccines from China.
According to an official of the Nepal Airlines, its aircraft is leaving for Beijing on July 8 to bring vaccines procured by the government from Sinopharm, the Chinese company.
“We are anticipating that around 1.2 million doses will be transported by the first chartered flight,” a senior Nepal Airlines official told the Post. “Another flight is leaving for Beijing on July 9 to bring another 800,000 doses.”
After that the remaining two million vaccine doses will be brought from China gradually, according to a Health Ministry official who did not want to be named.
The Oli government had also written to the US government and two US vaccine manufacturing companies to buy Covid-19 vaccines.
But both American vaccine manufacturing companies—Johnson & Johnson and Moderna—have ruled out the possibility of selling vaccines to Nepal before 2022 due to supply chain constraints and other reasons.
Despite the progress on procuring vaccines, according to Pradeep Gyawali, who served as the foreign minister until he was replaced by Mahaseth, it is difficult to actually get them although there has been progress.
“On that basis, anyone can take up the matter forward,” Gyawali told the Post. “But definitely, it is difficult in the absence of a minister.”
According to an official of the Health Ministry much will depend on Shrestha, the new health minister.
“We do not know how informed the present education minister is on the scale and magnitude of the pandemic,” a Health Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “We will definitely face difficulties in the days to come.”
But retired senior bureaucrats say there is no role of ministers in procurement-related issues and the only role of the minister is to be a link between the Cabinet and the ministry.
“Why do we need a minister?” Umesh Prasad Mainali, outgoing chairman of the Public Service Commission and former secretary, told the Post. “Our laws have given full authority of procurement to the secretary. So any secretary can take up the issue but they should dare to take the necessary decisions like financial matters and procurement related issues.”
Anyway, this is an election government and therefore it has very limited duties like rudimentary, stewardship and holding the elections on time, according to him.
“In this scenario, the prime minister can govern the country. If he is convinced, then any policy-related decision can be taken,” said Mainali. “Often, ministers only create obstacles.”
But the serving secretary said that it is not always possible to meet the prime minister.
“If the prime minister is available all the time as a minister is, then it is not an issue,” he said.
But as far as the workings of the Foreign Ministry is concerned, Oli is on top of things and it is his interest too, said a Foreign Ministry official on condition of anonymity.
“In other normal situations too, almost 70 percent issues used to be brought to the notice of the prime minister and therefore he is fully aware of the functioning of the Foreign Ministry,” the senior Foreign Ministry official told the Post on condition of anonymity. “We did not face any problems to get his time.”
But these are not normal times and the country is facing a pandemic.
Even while there were full time ministers at the Ministry of Health and Population and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no vaccines were procured with their initiative, said Leela Mani Poudyal, former chief secretary and Nepali ambassador to China.
“And now when a minister has to look after three or four ministries simultaneously, then definitely it creates problems. A prime minister alone will not know everything to fight the pandemic and cannot do everything,” he told the Post.
“A lot of lives could have been saved in the second wave if we had arranged for vaccines. There will be a similar loss of lives in the third wave of the pandemic.”