From here in my office at Tinkune, I get a clear view of the Tribhuvan International Airport. I love to see the colorful international flights take off and land—the orange lion of Malindo, the red-and-blue Nepal Airlines, the purple antelope of Qatar. No such luck of late. As I write this, not a single international airline, Nepali or foreign, is visible anywhere on the airport tarmac. This should have been a time our sole international airport was buzzing with traffic as it welcomed the flocking foreign tourists for Visit Nepal 2020.
The past few weeks have instead been a nightmare for Nepali tourism. Reportedly, we have only had a single case of novel coronavirus, and even that infected person is now up and running. Nepal has been lucky to have reported so few corona cases, despite its proximity to China. Even India has seen the number of cases steadily tick up. But is it a case of luck, or do we simply don’t have the tools to establish corona infections?
One explanation for the low number of reported cases could be Nepal’s relatively young population of 21.6 years: The older you are, the more likely you are to show corona symptoms and struggle with them. No one should be surprised if things quickly take a turn for the worse and we have to start forced quarantines. Yet how many people will follow government quarantine orders? Will they even trust their government to give them the right information?
What we see is that the countries whose governments are most trusted (China leads the pack in this) have fared the best in corona-control. But countries like Italy, France and Spain, where public trust in their government is low, have struggled to contain the virus. This trust can be the difference between life and death. And you can only build trust by telling cold, hard truths, however discomforting. (China thankfully started doing so after the initial cover-up.)
As John M. Barry recently put it in The New York Times, the most important lesson of the past pandemics is that the government must be seen as honest if it is to convince people to follow its instructions.
During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic (17-50 million deaths; 675,000 in the US alone), “neither national nor local government officials [in the US] told the truth. The disease was called ‘Spanish flu,’ and one national public-health leader said, ‘This is ordinary influenza by another name’.” As Barry writes, after Philadelphia began digging mass graves; closed schools, saloons and theaters; and banned public gatherings, one newspaper even wrote: “This is not a public health measure. There is no cause for alarm.”
Survey after survey shows Nepalis have little trust in their government, or in traditional media outlets. They are thus liable to believe all kinds of conspiracy theories like the government is suppressing the count of corona victims or, alternately, Covid-19 is no big deal at all, and the risks have been needlessly inflated by the Twitterati.
Yet there is also no alternative to trusting the government right now. The decisions it has made in the past few days have not been universally popular. But they were the right ones. If there indeed has been no corona cover-up, what a wonderful opportunity this is for the government to reestablish lost public trust.