Even if the House is prorogued, committees need to meet, analysts sayNepal’s federal parliament can follow the example of many parliaments around the world that are meeting either by ensuring safety norms or going digital.
The last time the House of Representatives met was HOUSE March 12. Sessions have been deferred three times since March 18, when the government began instituting measures to control spread of Covid-19 by prohibiting gatherings of more than 25 people.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, the 334-member federal parliament—275 in the House of Representatives and 59 in the National Assembly—obviously cannot meet physically in its full strength, but the smaller parliamentary committees, each of whose members number are between 15 and 28 could definitely meet by complying with safety norms, say political analysts.
The federal parliament and its committees are critical organs of the state that maintain a check on the government, and their need is being felt at a time when the KP Sharma Oli administration has been dragged into a series of controversies.
“The parliament must prove its essence by holding the government accountable to responsibly deal with the ongoing crisis,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator.
Since March 12, nearly a month ago, the only time a parliamentary committee met was on March 22, when it held two sessions to endorse the nomination of Mahendra Pandey as the ambassador to China.
Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, who also leads the high-level coordination committee to control Covid-19, and Health Minister Bhanubhakta Dhakal have both been pulled into a controversy over the procurement of medical equipment from China. Both have had complaints registered against them at the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
The Oli administration is also fielding a number of difficult questions from experts and the media regarding its failure to properly trace possible carriers of the coronavirus and conduct an adequate number of tests.
Both are issues that could be looked into by the parliamentary committees, especially the Public Accounts Committee.
Roj Nath Pandey, secretary at the Public Accounts Committee and spokesperson for the Parliament Secretariat, said he had already received a number of complaints about possible irregularities in the procurement of medical equipment, and the government’s intention to award the new procurement deal to the Nepal Army.
“I agree that there are issues the parliamentary committees should be looking into at this point,” said Pandey. “But there are difficulties in calling a meeting.”
Bharat Shah, chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, said that the committee will be looking into the case but is unsure when.
“I have spoken to officials at the secretariat regarding possibilities for a meeting,” he told the Post.
The government on Monday recommended that President Bidya Devi Bhandari prorogate the ongoing winter session of Parliament, but that does not imply that the House committees need to stop functioning.
The coronavirus has spread across the world, with almost every single country reporting at least a few cases, but governments have continued to function and parliaments have continued to meet, albeit with certain safety measures like maintaining proper distance, and even going digital, like in the United Kingdom.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of May 27, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 210 countries and infected more than 5,684,795 people with 352,225 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 150,793 with 4,344 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 57,705 confirmed cases with 1,197 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 772 cases with four deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.