Is PM Oli’s poor health hindering effective corona response in Nepal?

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Is PM Oli’s poor health hindering effective corona response in Nepal?

The absence of prime minister’s strong command has been felt in the past three months since the coronavirus started spreading around the world. Nepal found itself without test kits, protective equipment for healthcare workers, and basic medicine

From Donald Trump in the US to Narendra Modi in India, government executive heads are leading their respective country’s Covid-19 response. They drive the virus response, make important announcements, and try to keep the public morale high.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had also been at the forefront of his country’s corona response before he himself contracted the disease. Should he become incapable of working, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will take over important responsibilities, including the corona response.

But here in Nepal, even though Prime Minister KP Oli is recuperating from a kidney transplant operation, and could need rest for at least another six months, he has designated no heir-apparent to take up his responsibilities in his absence. He refuses to even temporarily hand over his responsibilities. Former Chief Secretary Bimal Koirala says it will be difficult for the government to make timely decisions without the prime minister’s active participation.

Since the corona outbreak, the prime minister has addressed the country just once. Last week he issued a short message on social media asking people to work from home as he was also working from his Baluwatar residence. Although PM Oli has tasked a committee led by Deputy Prime Minister Ishwar Pokhrel to deal with the corona crisis, the prime minister has not delegated decision-making to the deputy prime minister or any other minister.

PM Oli’s advisors say the executive head is still presiding over cabinet meetings when necessary and giving needed instructions. So there really is no need to worry.

In an interview with earlier this week, Prime Minister’s Political Advisor Bishnu Rimal ruled out any possibility that the kidney transplant would keep the prime minister away from work for long. “The prime minister has no problem holding cabinet meetings and coming to quick decisions,” he says.

But at the time of his discharge from hospital following the transplant, the prime minister’s medical team had said that Oli could take around six months to be active again and had advised complete rest. Some days later, PM Oli was admitted at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital after having difficulty with his breathing. He was discharged after 24 hours.

Doctors have already said that even limited activity is bad for Oli’s health. Yet there does not seem to be much coordination among other top Nepal Communist Party leaders on filling Oli’s perceived void.  

According to political analyst Puranjan Acharya, even in normal times, a country like Nepal without robust state mechanisms needs a strong executive head—and even more so during crisis. Even with the active corona response of other prime ministers and presidents around the world, he says, “they are still failing. In our case, the PM is almost inactive and state mechanisms are not working. Making things worse, those in the government are involved in blame games.”

Acharya reckons cabinet members are ineffective in the absence of clear directions from the top. If things continue this way, the Oli government “will not be able to handle the escalating corona crisis.”

The absence of the prime minister’s strong command has already been felt in the past three months since the coronavirus started spreading around the world. Nepal found itself without test kits, protective equipment for healthcare workers and basic medicine. Vital supply chains were broken. Lack of coordination has been apparent both within the ministry of health as well as between the provincial assemblies and local governments.

“The lack of PM’s direct and active leadership has already been seen in the fight against coronavirus,” says Krishna Pokhrel, another political analyst. “Before going for kidney transplant, the PM had formed a committee led by DPM Pokhrel. But the committee failed to list out necessities and buy them from abroad. Similarly, there was no preparation to set up test labs outside Kathmandu valley.” Pokhrel thinks the mechanism Oli has in place to deal with the corona crisis is not working.

Acharya says the absence of the prime minister’s active leadership has led to anarchism in the bureaucracy and complete non-cooperation by private hospitals.

“In this time of crisis, we have to work at war-footing, with the bureaucracy, the security forces, the opposition parties and the civil society working together. But that is not happening. The trust in cabinet ministers is dwindling, which is a matter of worry,” he says. As worrying, Acharya adds, even the kind of international support Nepal received in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake has been missing. 

Alternatively, Sajha Party led by former journalist Rabindra Mishra has submitted a memorandum to the government proposing a joint political mechanism to fight coronavirus.

Since the outbreak, there has been just one all-party meeting chaired by DPM Pokhrel. All political parties support the government’s fight against coronavirus. But they would also like to see more initiative and direction from the top.