As Covid-19 third wave approaches its peak, govt itself is in isolation in Nepal

After a few politicians from the ruling parties contracted Covid-19 following a meeting of the coalition on January 6, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba went into isolation. Despite testing negative for the coronavirus, Deuba has not been as active as he should be. Being the prime minister of the country, he should have been taking stock of how the country is dealing with the third wave of Covid-19. But instead, Deuba has been busy with party politics, puzzling everyone.

Deuba’s attitude seems to have rubbed off on his government too as it seems to have isolated itself from the ongoing pandemic as it has done next to nothing to help Nepalis deal with the third wave and the spread of the Omicron variant.

The virus in the government

File: Ministry of Health

The Omicron variant spreads quickly. Its effects are showing in Nepal as the past week Nepal has seen an average of 4,300 cases a day. Public health experts say that to break the chain of transmission, the country should have worked faster than the virus. But, with the government not bothered, things will only get worse, says infectious disease expert, Dr Prabhat Adhikari.

This takes you back to Deuba. For most of December 2021, he was busy with his party’s general convention. During that time, Nepal recorded its first case of the Omicron variant. Following his reelection as the president of the Nepali Congress, Deuba has been busy speaking to leaders about who gets to fill the vacant positions in the National Assembly. This goes to show how least bothered he is about the ongoing third wave of Covid-19 in the country.

“It’s shocking to see him not show any urgency,” says an official from the Health Ministry. “He orders people and then carries on with his daily work. This has been the problem with past prime ministers too.”

The Covid-19 situation in January-February 2022 as estimated by the Ministry of Health and Population.
The Covid-19 situation in January-February 2022 as estimated by the Ministry of Health and Population on January 18, 2022.

It is the job of the health minister to alert the prime minister about the ongoing third wave. But, a source close to the prime minister says Deuba feels that Health Minister Birodh Khatiwada is not concerned about this third wave. That is why public health experts feel that the daily cases continue to rise.

Infectious disease expert Dr Adhikari says that once Omicron spread across India, Nepal should have started to administer booster doses to health workers and senior citizens. But, it has only been a few days that the government has started giving booster shots.

“The government is confused. Now is the time to increase testing and ensure hospitals are ready. But, it seems its focus is on something else,” says Dr Adhikari.

Former health minister Khagaraj Adhikari also says that the government has not done anything to control the third wave.

“During such a health emergency, the health ministry should be active. But, it seems it’s busy transferring people here and there rather than motivating health workers and managing human resources at hospitals,” he says.

Ineffective government bodies

Department of Health Services

When the government and its bodies failed to tackle the Covid-19 third wave, the then KP Sharma Oli-led government formed Covid-19 Crisis Management Committee (CCMC). The committee was led by former Nepal Army lieutenant-general Balananda Sharma.

But, with a change of government, the head of the CCMC also changed as Sharma was removed. The CCMC itself has also changed as it is now converted into the Covid-19 Crisis Management Coordination Centre (CCMCC). Even though it is led by a government secretary, experts say the CCMCC is weaker than the erstwhile CCMC as far as controlling the third wave is concerned.

The ineffectiveness of the CCMCC is clear as it has not even been able to conduct regular meetings. The only thing it has done so far is hand out government recommendations of how to control the spread of Covid-19.

The chief of CCMCC, Ram Prasad Thapaliya, agrees the centre has not been able to work as per the need, but he says that that is due to its members contracting the virus themselves.

According to a member of the CCMCC, in the recommendation, the centre also added a provision through which the chief district officer can impose a smart lockdown to control the third wave. As the cases increased, this should have already been done. But, this provision was only passed by the council of ministers on January 14.

Whose job is it anyway?

Health Minister Birodh Khatiwada
File: Health Minister Birodh Khatiwada

The government issued the Covid-19 Management Ordinance on September 21, 2021. According to the ordinance, a committee was formed under the leadership of the prime minister and had members from almost all the ministries including ministers and secretaries.

The committee was tasked with making plans and policies regarding controlling Covid-19. The committee was also asked to speak to the provincial and local governments and coordinate with them to help curb the spread.

But, public health expert Dr Babu Ram Marasini says the local and provincial levels were not given clear instructions by the committee, and its results have been apparent in the ongoing third wave.

“They didn’t know their role and don’t know how to act and that has led to this outbreak,” says Marasini.

He says that during the first and second waves, the local and provincial levels acted on their own and created temporary quarantine centres with funds given by the central government. But this time, as funds have not come, the local governments have not been able to do so.

“The government says they don’t even have people to up the vaccination drive in the country. We have to send people to villages and raise awareness about the virus, but nothing is being done,” says former health minister Khagaraj Adhikhari, calling on the centre to coordinate with the provincial and local governments. “We need to up contact tracing and ensure we are vaccinating people.”

Dr Maraisini says that the government should have divided roles and responsibilities of who did what by now for effective control of the third wave. But, the government has not even specified the role of the CCMCC.

“All power has been given to the CDOs. But, it’s been given in an unclear manner,” says Dr Marisini.

Chaos at border points

The holding centre in Province 1 is still waiting to be completed.
The holding centre in Province 1 is still waiting to be completed.

The first and second waves got out of hand due to poor handling of India-Nepal border points. Despite that, the government has not learned anything and is repeating the same mistake in the third wave also. The government has not set up quarantine centres near the border points.

During the first two waves, the Nepal Army was deployed to manage people coming into the country from India. But, in the third wave, all they are doing is constructing a holding centre near the border points which is yet to be complete.

No one knows whose role is to manage people coming into the country through these border points and that is causing problems because people who are testing positive are being sent home. According to the Health Ministry, around 300 people who enter Nepal are testing positive for Coivd-19 every day.

“This shows how bad the preparation is. The pandemic has been around for two years, and we can’t seem to build a quarantine centre at a border point,” says Dr Marasini.

Vaccination at snail’s pace

A health worker prepares a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, in Kathmandu, January 2021.
A health worker prepares a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, in Kathmandu, January 2021.

The vaccination rate in the country is also a worry for the third wave, say public health experts. As of January 18, only 40.6 per cent of the total population has been vaccinated.

“It should have been around 80 per cent by now,” says Dr Marasini.

The reason for the delay, according to former Health Minister Khagaraj Adhikari, was a shortage of syringes.

“The government has been so irresponsible towards its citizens. Not being able to distribute vaccines due to a shortage of syringes is very poor planning,” he says.

Need for better planning and strong mechanism

Former secretary and member of the CCMC, Mahendra Guragain, says the government needs a strong mechanism to deal with the virus in the third wave.

“We need to prepare to make decisions based on the situation. We might upset people, but the mechanism needs to be strong because leaving this in the hands of government officials will not cut it. A body like the CCMC should be formed and decisions should be taken by them,” says Guragain.

A high-ranking official at the newly formed CCMCC says they have not been able to do this because it takes quite a long for their suggestion to reach the prime minister.

“The CCMC had direct contact with the prime minister, but we don’t. And that is causing a lot of problems,” said the official.

Dr Marasini believes the CCMCC should be full of experts from all fields and they should be allowed to make decisions based on situations so that the third wave can be controlled easily.

“We need a mechanism that will make it easy for a body like CCMCC to have direct contact with the prime minister, which will help in implementing the decision fast,” says Dr Marisini.

Infectious disease expert Dr Adhikari agrees with Dr Marisini and says that it was time politicians stopped taking decisions when it came to public health.

“Experts should be making these decisions and politicians should be helping them implement the decisions,” says Dr Adhikari.

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Pokharel is an Onlinekhabar correspondent covering security and crime.

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