It’s official: the Oli government has surrendered to the coronavirus. Its latest decisions have made it pretty clear that the most powerful elected government in the country’s history has neither the right strategies nor the political will to fight the virus, which as of Tuesday, had infected 139,129 and killed 765.
On Oct 18, the Ministry of Health and Population said that the government would no longer bear the expenses for the tests or treatment of Covid-19. The poor will still be eligible for free service, but only if they can furnish proof that they are actually destitute–which means there is a good chance that most patients will die before they can receive treatment.
On Monday, a Cabinet meeting decided to build a new crematorium in Kathmandu, expand the existing ones, and hire the manpower needed to ensure unhindered funeral services. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City is separately working to expand the existing crematorium.
Even before these two decisions, the government had ended social-distancing rules on public vehicles, paving the way for vehicles operating on both short- and long-haul commutes to fill their seats to capacity.
So, what will be the implications of these decisions?
The decisions essentially mean that the poor people in one of the poorest countries in the world have now been left at the mercy of hot water, turmeric and lord Pashupatinath to fight the biggest public health crisis they’ve suffered through–because their government has washed its hands of its responsibilities.
The Oli government had all the time in the world to make the necessary plans and preparations to contain the virus. There were only two Covid-19 cases when it first imposed a nationwide lockdown in March. But instead of coming up with plans for tracking, tracing, and testing Nepali migrants returning from India and other countries, or fixing loopholes in the country’s ailing health system, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli continued downplaying the risk of the virus. “The coronavirus is just like the flu. If you contract it, you should sneeze, drink hot water, and drive it away,” PM Oli had said while addressing the National Assembly in June.
There have been times when he has sounded more like a brand ambassador for turmeric powder than an informed prime minister armed with strategies to combat the virus. His tone continued to remain defiant until some of his personal aides and members of his Cabinet got infected.
Three of his Cabinet ministers–Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai, Science and Technology and Education Minister Giriraj Mani Pokharel, and Physical Infrastructure Minister Basanta Nembang–have contracted Covid-19 so far. Over 100 of his guards, advisors, and secretaries have also been infected.
It’s unclear what prompted the Oli government to stop the free tests and treatment. The Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) has cited resource constraints as the main reason for stopping the free tests. That claim is laughable given that the government had just recently allocated NRs 60 million each to all directly elected MPs of the federal parliament, through the MP development fund, which has long been under the scanner for misuse of taxpayer money.
On Tuesday, during the MoHP’s virtual press briefing, Health Minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal–with a straight face–claimed that the government decision accorded with the desires and needs of the people. Dhakal said the move will increase access of the public to quality health services.
Observers, however, have said that the reckless decision might be part of an effort to create a false sense of normalcy at a time when Nepal, despite the government’s plans to kickstart the economy before major festivals, is becoming one of the biggest hotspots for Covid-19 in the Indian subcontinent. Despite having one of the lowest test rates, Nepal has one of the highest transmission rates in the region. Currently, Nepal’s transmission rate is 10.5 percent; and in Kathmandu it has oftentimes reached as high as 31 percent. The Nepal government claims to have conducted 1,314,779 tests as of Tuesday, of which 139,129 have turned up positive. And as per the MoHP’s report, the total number of active Covid-19 cases has reached 41,775.
Hospitals across the country are being overrun with Covid-19 patients. But there’s a widespread shortage of beds, ICUs, and ventilators, including in Kathmandu. The overworked and underpaid health workers, including those working at big hospitals like Bir Hospital, Patan Hospital, and Civil Hospital, have been protesting because they haven’t been provided risk allowances and safety kits.
A few public health experts have begun to suspect that the Oli government might be placing all its bets on herd immunity, after having seen the disastrous results of the Chinese model of lockdown Nepal had implemented for containing the virus.
Whatever the reason, experts have warned that the latest decision, if not corrected on time, would lead to a massive rise in the number of unaccounted deaths, despite the momentary respite. The decision to defund Covid-19 testing and treatment also violates the citizens’ constitutional right to basic health. It also contradicts the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s (NCP) own election manifesto, which pledges healthcare for all.
In the wake of the MoHP’s circular to halt free services, health experts and opposition parties have been mounting pressure on the government to reconsider its decision. Nepali Congress spokesperson Bishwa Prakash Sharma said that they would come up with a tax-boycott campaign if the decision was not reversed. A section of the ruling NCP has also opposed the decision. NCP leader Madhav Kumar Nepal on Tuesday demanded that the government reverse the decision. More leaders are expected to join the crowd of dissenters given that several NCP leaders have long expressed dissatisfaction at the Oli government’s gross mishandling of the pandemic. They fear that the decision could further diminish the party’s credibility, especially when the party is losing its popularity among its voter base, including among migrant families, farmers, and daily wage labourers.
National rights organisations too have objected to the move and called out the government to respect the constitutional rights of the people. In a statement on Tuesday, the National Human Rights Commission said the government must not shy away from its responsibility of ensuring free basic health services, particularly during a pandemic. The Informal Sector Service Center (Insec), a leading national rights organisation, has also urged the government to respect the constitutional right to health.
Since the NCP came to power in 2018, nearly all the decisions taken by the Oli government have been marked by a blatant disregard for science and experts’ advice, sheer lack of empathy, and absence of a sense of duty toward the public. Most of these decisions have been implemented without encountering major opposition. The opposition parties and civil society have silently watched the people suffer the consequences of the government’s reckless decisions.
The manner in which the government has conducted itself over the current and earlier crises raises two main questions: Will things remain the same for the next two years of Oli’s tenure? Or will it change for the better? If its past track record is anything to go by, things are unlikely to change on their own. But a strong opposition might force the Oli government to change its working style–for its own good and for the good of the people.