Bimala Rai Paudyal, a member of the National Assembly, speaks about the Nepal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its shortcomings in her own words.

The measures taken to control the pandemic were good but inadequate: Bimala Rai Paudyal

The biggest challenge to the Covid-19 pandemic that I saw was a lack of preparedness, especially for the most pervasive pandemic we have ever faced. We dealt with a similar challenge during 2015’s devastating earthquakes. This pandemic wasn’t predicted but we should have started to prepare after the emergence of the virus in China. But, we were lost on that front.

We are dealing with the pandemic based on an outdated law. As the country has already been transformed into a federal set up, there should have been a new law with a clear mandate, especially for coordination among intergovernmental agencies, health mechanisms, provisions of relief and rescue for the needy, and ways to strengthen financial and human resources. An integrated legal framework is still necessary to tackle the pandemic effectively.  

Some countries drafted new laws as soon as Covid-19 cases emerged in their countries. The move cleared legal hurdles, defined the roles and responsibilities of state bodies, and eased the procurement process. But we faced great difficulties in large-scale medical procurement and in maintaining transparency owing to the lack of a pandemic law

As of now, the government is working under a law promulgated some 57 years ago.  

Second, we failed to formulate a broad framework on how to tackle Covid-19 in time. Clear roles and responsibilities for all three tiers of governments would’ve helped in responding to the crisis in a coordinated manner.  

Our health system is itself also a challenge. This pandemic exposed how vulnerable our health system is. Forget basic health protocols like quarantine facilities and isolation centres, there was not even adequate space to admit patients to the hospital. There was no preparedness in handling non-Covid-19 patients, particularly those suffering from pressure, sugar, cancer, and other health complications. Several pregnant women died on their way to the hospital or at home due to a lack of timely treatment. We lack sufficient health infrastructures and human resources.

The government should also have defined a broader framework before enforcing a lockdown. We didn’t allot enough time for workers living in big cities like Kathmandu to go home. That’s why we witnessed heartbreaking stories of people struggling to reach their homes. Arrangements should have been put in place to ferry people to their respective destinations before enforcing the lockdown.

Nevertheless, thousands of migrant workers from India and the Gulf countries managed to return home with skills and a little bit of seed money. They have returned with a desire to stay home. If we had tracked all returning migrant workers, analysed their skills and needs, and provided them with job opportunities, we could’ve easily replaced the 800,000 Indian and Bangladeshi people working in Nepal. They could’ve been mobilized to complete our megaprojects and resume agricultural farming. That was the biggest opportunity for all of us, but we failed to cash in. Migrant workers have now started returning to their labour destinations.  

We need a clear delineation of the jurisdiction of the three levels of government. For example, the federal government should have set a broader policy framework, such as isolation and quarantine centres, human resource ratio, finances and supplies, and dealing with non-Covid-19 complications. All these acts should’ve then been executed by the local governments with the provincial government coordinating.

During the Covid-19 crisis, we saw that some local governments were very innovative in handling the pandemic, although there were challenges related to capacity building. The way the local leadership, especially women deputy mayors, dealt with migrant workers arriving through the porous border with India deserves appreciation. The relevance of local government was proved during this pandemic.  

Local governments can work effectively when they believe that the federal and provincial governments will support them whenever problems arise. Some local governments introduced the concept of agricultural ambulance to assist farmers in selling their products during the lockdown. Other local governments ensured reproductive services for people at their doorsteps. Provinces actually should have applied such good practices in other local governments as well.  

Sadly, we couldn’t empower local governments as necessary. There’s always a problem in maintaining a delicate balance between the authority and capacity of local governments. In other words, some local governments have the authority but lack capacity whereas others have done little despite having enough working capacity.

A crisis response team should have been formed at the federal and provincial governments so that problems at the local level could be resolved immediately. The government formed the CCMC (Coronavirus Crisis Management Committee) to bridge the gap but it has not been functioning effectively. Its activities are limited to organizing meetings and providing updates. It tried to ease the procurement process, but failed.  

Mere bureaucratic decisions can’t contain a pandemic. Therefore, the government should listen to experts and execute their suggestions. There’s the same problem at the local government level. Elected mayors don’t respect public health experts. So, there’s a mismatch between authority and expertise.  

Vulnerable communities, namely women, children, people with disabilities, and marginalised groups, suffer the most during the crisis. Daily wage earners, small entrepreneurs, beauty parlor operators and those working in service sector have been deprived of their incomes. Hotel owners might have faced economic losses but those working in the hotels were deprived of food.

Despite all these shortcomings, the federal government announced a relief package for vulnerable groups a few weeks after announcing the lockdown. Local governments were mandated to provide relief. This was actually a good step, although there were some legal complications in receiving relief. But locals did not trust the government. They went to Khula Manch or temple premises to claim free food distributed by NGOs, but didn’t go to their ward offices asking for help. On the other hand, local governments too failed to reach out.

During the pandemic, women were overworked at home while violence against women also increased significantly due to unemployment of males and rising frustration. Children too became victims as schools have remained closed for the last eight months. Disabled persons needed special care during the crisis but they continued to face problems. So did senior citizens. Women’s access to reproductive health was also compromised. We raised these issues in Parliament and the government introduced a guideline, especially aimed at airlifting pregnant women and new mothers to hospitals. The government has categorized reproductive health as an essential service, but the service delivery is not satisfactory.  

Social protection schemes were compromised too. The government announced an allowance for senior citizens and the disabled but they weren’t able to go to the banks to collect their money.

Cases of suicide also surged. These problems were not foreseen in the initial days. Later, we started counseling and relief packages were announced, but we couldn’t do better because of bureaucratic red tape.

Having said that, the measures we took in response to the Covid-19 crisis were good but inadequate. In order to do better, multilateral and regional organisations like SAARC and BIMSTEC can assist with relief, immediate health support, and economic recovery. Institutions like the ILO can support the strengthening of social protection schemes while multilateral organisations can support the Government of Nepal in reviving the economy. They can share experiences of other countries in reviving tourism, public transportation, and reopening academic institutions, and also support us technically and financially. I/NGOs can also support local governments in expanding health care, building infrastructure, public health, and awareness.

The Nepal government has the pandemic under more control than other developing countries and even some developed countries like the US and UK where the situation is out of control. Our government has been successful in stopping major health hazards so far. This is good for all of us.