In the midst of a deadly second wave of the pandemic, with an ever-increasing number of new cases and deaths, Nepali leadership has been preoccupied with power struggles rather than devising effective strategies to address the looming public health crisis. The state’s abdication of responsibility for public well being and defense amid the country’s health emergency has been the most shameful failure of the past year.
Nepal’s leadership downplayed the severity of the pandemic, dithering, reacting too late with too little, peddling disinformation about quack remedies, dabbling in superstition, holding super-spreader political rallies, bungling Covid-control initiatives, failing in execution, attempting to profit from medical material contracts, and engaging in a bitter blame game.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the Parliament for the second time in less than six months on May 22, following the advice of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, and announced elections for November 12 and November 19. Given the current state of the pandemic, it’s impossible that Covid-19 will be fully eradicated by then. Every day, about 8,000 new infections are recorded, with nearly a hundred people dying every 24 hours. The coronavirus has infected over 100,000 people, with many of them fighting for their lives. Just 7% of the population has received one vaccine dose. Though people and diplomats plead with the international community for vaccines and medical supplies, the government will now begin planning for an election that will cost about Rs 20 billion. How can foreign actors trust a government that begs for assistance while doing little or little to fight the pandemic and still calling for expensive elections?
As luck would have it, the grand finale of this political circus occurs just as Nepal’s daily Covid-19 case count and fatalities reach an all-time high. None of this seems to matter to those seeking to dethrone Oli, or to a prime minister who has shown that he would go to any length to retain his job. A Covid-19 tsunami of this magnitude, to be sure, would have caught even the most effective country off guard. That, however, is not an excuse. Smart leaders, on the other hand, may use a crisis like this to reshape their sagging reputation through delivery and results.
But all in haste, not many politicians want to work on delivering what they have signed up for that is to serve the ‘needs’ of people and the only ‘need’ that they are serving is non other than their own. Despite of relief materials coming in the country through INGOs or GOs of other nations, some of these materials do not even see the light of the day and are stuck at the customs department. To get a bed with an ICU has now become a challenge even to the rich and powerful people of the nation, think about the situation of the people who neither have resources to save themselves or their family, nor know anybody that can help them to save their lives. “I tried searching for ICU bed for my father for two days but could not find it and had to see him die in-front of my eyes,” says Bhim Magar (name changed), who lost his father due to Covid-19.
With the increasing death rates in the country, the helplessness of ordinary people has increased. Similarly, although media has been broadcasting the lack of availability of ICU beds in hospitals, lack of oxygen in the city, but there is not enough coverage garnered to rural areas where lack of medical personals to even look after the patient has been a challenge let alone the availability of ICU beds with proper medical equipment. A medical officer based in Rukum mentions, “There are people who come with symptoms similar to Covid-19, but due to the shortage of testing kits we cannot even treat the patients accordingly,” adding, “If such basic kits cannot be provided by the government, how can we expect better equipment’s from them to treat patient with Covid properly.”
Thus, Nepal is in dire need of government intervention to manage the chaos that Covid-19 has created but callousness has always been a defining feature of Nepalese leadership. Whether it was the Ranas, Shahs, or the countless men that followed, the welfare of the citizens a concern for their right to live in dignity has never been on their priority list. Perhaps it is on us, those of us who believe that a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide epidemic will force people to put politics aside for the time being. We should have learnt from the 2015 earthquakes, which were another once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, when the political establishment used the tragedy to force through a constitution that many people opposed.
If the Supreme Court allows the elections to go on, the pandemic, as well as the lockdown, social distance, and prohibition on mass gatherings, will be ignored. The focus of the politicians will go towards the elections and campaigns will kick off with a series of large-scale rallies across the country. And ordinary people like us will still continue to die.
Aashiyana Adhikari is a research associate at Centre for South Asian Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.