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The Supreme Court on Thursday issued two important orders to do with public health. A full bench of justices Sapana Pradhan Malla, Hari Krishna Karki, and Purusottam Bhandari quashed an appeal by the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) that sought a review of the court’s earlier order to the government to provide free PCR tests and treatment of Covid patients. The court also said that Minister of Health Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal will have to explain within a week why the government stopped providing free tests and treatment. Furthermore, it has warned that action could be taken against the minister for the government’s not complying with the court’s earlier order regarding free Covid testing and treatment.

 On November 1, the MoHP, through the Office of the Attorney General, had lodged an appeal expressing its inability to provide free tests and treatment of Covid patients. The ministry argued that the government did not have enough resources–neither the budget nor the manpower–to provide free tests and treatment. The ministry had urged the court to rescind its earlier order in its entirety.

Back on Oct 1, the apex court had instructed the government to provide free tests and treatment for Covid patients. As the infection rate escalated, two lawyers–Lokendra Oli and Keshar Jung KC–had sought a court intervention, arguing that free health was the constitutional right of the public and that the same should be applied during the Covid-19 pandemic. Responding to the petition, Justices Tanka Bahadur Moktan and Ananda Mohan Bhattarai had instructed the government to provide free PCR tests and treatment. The court had also instructed the government to expedite testing. 

But the government continued to ignore the court order. Instead, on Oct 5, the Cabinet took the decision to cover just the expenses of the poor, persons with disabilities, single women, senior citizens, and frontline workers. However, the MoHP made that decision public only on Oct 18. The MoHP’s spokesperson, Dr Jageswhor Gautam, in a regular briefing had said that all other individuals should bear the cost of tests and treatment themselves. 

The government decision did not just contradict the court order–it was in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The decision was ridiculed by the public. The government, however, insisted that it would cover all costs of tests and treatment of patients if they were unable to foot the bill. 

And despite the public outcry, the government moved the court to repeal the court’s earlier order. This came as a shock to the public. Two days after the MoHP lodged the petition, the lawyer duo filed a contempt of court case against the MoHP and the health minister for non-compliance with the apex court’s decision. 

Now, the court has asked Health Minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal to defend himself in court within a week. In other words, Minister Dhakal will have to explain to the court as to why he failed to carry out the court’s order. The petition has sought a one-year jail term for the minister and NRs 10,000 in fine for flouting the order. 

The court orders will help the public get free tests and treatment. The government has been shying away from its responsibility of containing the virus, let alone conducting tests and providing treatment for Covid patients. These court orders come as a pleasant surprise because the court has handed down a series of controversial verdicts in recent times

The orders could push the government, which has officially surrendered to the virus, to do the right thing. As of now, it has started charging for tests and treatment, and it has massively reduced the number of daily PCR tests. In fact, the MoHP has even stopped giving daily Covid briefings and making public the number of daily tests and new infection figures. 

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In line with the federal government, the local bodies too have stopped tracing the contacts of the infected, and started charging for isolation services. This has deprived many poor and marginalized people of their right to know about their Covid-19 status at a time when the virus is rapidly spreading for lack of timely tests.

“The worrying part is that the death toll is on the rise due to lack of treatment. The infection rate is likely to get worse during the winter, which makes for a conducive environment for the virus,” said Dr Bhabindra Karki, of Bir Hospital. 

Nepal recorded 18 Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking the national tally to 1,052. With 3,051 new cases, the country’s total confirmed infections had reached 185,974 by Thursday.