read 6 min

Human history is a saga of natural, political and human crises. Since we are flawed with a short-term memory, the challenges we face today might seem bigger than previous ones. In 2015, Nepal survived a series of catastrophes that continue to leave behind lasting consequences in society.

The devastating earthquake, the multiple dimensions of crisis it created, the Constitution drafted through a fast-track process which agitated Madheshi people, minorities and women, and the blockade – all make 2015 a significant year in the history of our country. And yet they seem trivial compared to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In 2015, the youth population was at its peak. Nepal experienced the biggest youth-bulge that year. The mega-opportunity provided by this demographic dividend will not be available in many decades to come. Five hundred thousand youngsters spontaneously and proactively volunteered in rescue and relief actions in the aftermath of the earthquake.

I recently spoke with some people in leadership positions in the organizations that had mobilized thousands of youth across Nepal. We talked about what initiatives youngsters today could undertake in the crisis created by the coronavirus.

There are some fundamental differences between natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, landslides, cold waves, and the fear brought about by coronavirus. The individual efforts needed differ too. Yet, something fundamentally common is evident – the State’s incompetence.

Statesmen carrying the burden of dictatorship repeatedly question – the government is doing whatever it can, what are you doing for the country? This sort of “darbariya raag” – a chorus of vitriol emanating from hangers-on of those in power and usually targeted at those that question the government – is reminiscent of our feudal past and is not new to us.

In societies that aspire towards democracy, as we currently do, citizens must question the State and authority. Counter-questioning by affiliates of the State, with an eye to hide innate self-deficiencies – cannot absolve them of accountability. The State should not always have the privilege of parroting patriotism to hide its weaknesses.

Generally, common citizens do not seek out the State except for legal and administrative issues. It is understandable to not expect the State’s presence in everyday life. In its place, the State lets the private sector interfere indiscriminately in fundamental sectors, including education and health, and thus grooms two parallel societies – the privileged and the marginalized, the haves and the have nots. Regardless of whether leftist or democratic parties are in power, the rampant interference of profit-mongering interest groups is increasingly becoming the acceptable new trend in Nepali politics.

Statistics show that about 500 lives are lost annually to different disasters. Add lives lost in road accidents and mutilated people, the number reaches thousands. These annual disasters do not remain in our collective memories for long. Thanks to whatever is left of community values, families and households gradually recover and go on with their lives despite not receiving any compensation from the State.

In the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, there was a lack of coordination in relief measures, particularly in reconstruction. Policies were donor-driven and not people-oriented/responsive. The sloppiness of old-fashioned state mechanism and structure amidst a squabble for power led to months of delay in setting up a reconstruction authority.

Read also: A Ghost Settlement in Gorkha

Nonetheless, affected communities did not question the State in an organized and collective manner. Since every so-called major political party contributed to the delay, their sister organizations too kept mum. Sadly, the state structure too, similar to the people, apparently suffers from short-term memory. It failed to learn from past crises and prepare accordingly.

On one hand the unproductive Prime Minister Self-employment Program wastes billions, on the other hand at least one person from nearly 65 per cent of all households still leaves the country for foreign employment. After the earthquake, youths employed in the Gulf countries collected monthly donations and took turns to build each others’ houses. The State’s compensation fell short and the process became very bureaucratic. Yet, the people did look for other alternatives and did not wait for the State. Whatever they were left with, they accepted to make do with.

Read also: We toiled day and night to rebuild our house after the earthquake, and K.P. Oli took all the credit

During the blockade after the promulgation of the new Constitution, the State got an excuse to blame India for all the damage done and stood unblemished itself. Black marketing and inflation soared. Daily wage earners were forced to croon state-composed patriotism. This government stands on the very foundation of patriotism and yet is not shy of frequenting the same old yester-year governance that it says it fundamentally opposes. This too was not unexpected.

While the bad governance continues, apart from social media responses, the political and social spheres have not organized protests against the ruling government’s multiple unproductive decisions. The plan to construct a view tower worth billions in the Prime Minister’s home district and providing helicopter facility for the President are some representative examples. Despite the failure of three-tiered federal, provincial and local governments to deliver visible results in education, employment and basic livelihood, they have continued to rule unrestrained. In terms of what the State and its mechanisms aim to achieve, nothing has changed for the people. Everything is as it always was.

Crises don’t announce their arrival and the failure to assess the warning signs right now will certainly bring horrible consequences. Nepal had plenty of time to prepare for possible effects and take necessary actions when the Chinese province of Wuhan was struggling with the coronavirus outbreak. One stark example of inaction and complacency is that coronavirus testing capacity was limited to only Teku Hospital for three months.

Sukraraj Tropical Hospital, Kathmandu

Ministers were busy claiming Nepal a coronavirus-free country while the World Health Organization was on the cusp of declaring the crisis a global pandemic. Leaders who preferred medical treatment in Singapore did not even ponder why neighboring countries took emergency steps and fast paced their response.

Our government’s reluctance to test symptomatic cases, the lack of adequate resources for medical workers two months after this was declared a pandemic, the availability of only a few hundreds Coronavirus test kits, the absolute lack of appropriate information on protocols about quarantine, self-quarantine, isolation, and treatment, and the clumsiness in enforcing this lockdown… the list of state incompetencies just goes on and on.

The government had two options: assess a possible crisis based on earlier experience and become proactive or react after the crisis arrives. The government found it easier to lockdown, but not before active cases were found, as if it had no other option.

The effectiveness of lockdowns in preventing outbreaks can’t be disputed but countries including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, despite multitude of infections, kept the whole country free from lockdowns. In a country with millions of people struggling to meet daily ends, particularly the urban poor and the residents of squatter settlements, there has been no dialogue or debate about how they will cope with an extended period of lockdown. So far, there have been no initiatives from the relevant authorities and personnel to manage daily necessities, medicines, and emergency services for the low-income group.

The WHO and the countries fighting coronavirus have repeatedly emphasized the importance of testing but the present pitiful condition of testing in Nepal not only makes it difficult to assess the real crisis but it is also impossible to formulate necessary strategies and implement them. Due to the limited capacity to test, the future actions of government may largely rely only on assumptions.

Approximately five hundred thousand people from India and thousands from other countries have already arrived in Nepal. It is the second week of lockdown. What a disgrace that only 1100 tests have been done. Without testing, how can we know if those who died in Nepal were not infected?

Few days ago, in response to queries about medical treatment and care provisions for the elderly population of Nepal, the Health Minister simply said that they can be taken to health facilities and that the doctors will be mindful while caring for them. This lame answer will not reassure the members of an age-group that is most at risk to Coronavirus infection.

The future will certainly be shaped by how the Nepali society fights the coronavirus crisis but it will leave behind a long-term impact on an economy and society reliant on remittance. Will the Nepali citizenry again curse their fates and exempt the State from its duties?

If we fail to free Nepal from the tendency to respond to every crisis with make-do solutions, the State’s incompetence will be an open invitation to bigger crises in the future.