Tackling with the Covid-19 pandemic calls for a robust public policy response. While there is no denying that the pandemic has challenged the capacities of even the best public health systems, that can’t be a pretext for any country to shy away from the responsibility of general welfare in these tough times. A critical inquiry into the public policy response of Nepal indicates that the measures adopted so far have been rather inadequate and inappropriate even though authorities continue to dismiss this fact.
Ever since the first outbreak in Nepal, the pattern of policy response has shown some familiar characteristics. With an inability to take timely decisions on crucial matters, be it lockdown or virus containment, the health ministry bureaucracy has become badly exposed. Needless to say, the statements of some officials have only added to public confusion and anxiety. Health experts are also miffed about the government’s failure to get their buy-in. A single-handed approach to crisis management without taking other stakeholders into confidence has proved lethal, which is also evidenced by soaring Covid cases.
Conflict ensued when the government made it mandatory for all hospitals to allocate dedicated Covid beds without consulting them. The government might have done it with the best intent but it still failed to take the concerned parties into confidence. Moreover, the policy leaders have appeared reluctant to heed even non-partisan voices demanding an improved policy response. We definitely face a resource constraint yet we can also effectively mobilize available resources. Standards of accountability and transparency have fallen sharply during the pandemic. Be it the Omni group scandal or financial irregularities in the Covid-related treatment, mistrust is growing over the government handling of the crisis.
The very notion of a socialism-oriented Nepali state spelled out in the constitution has witnessed severe setbacks, particularly in the aftermath of some baffling decisions over the crisis. The decision to halt free treatment of Covid patients, which has now been reversed following a Supreme Court ruling, was a serious departure from the commitment to socialism. Amid the rising number of infected patients who are dying for the want of money, such an irrational decision met with vehement criticism. That said, the government later clarified that it would bear the cost of the socio-economically deprived population. Not to forget, Right to Health, one of the 31 fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, ensures that every citizen shall have equal access to health service. However, the Covid-19 policy response continues to disproportionately affect poor people’s access to health services. Whether we refer to the recovery rate of this category of population or Covid fatalities, a bleak picture emerge.
Lately, the decision of the Kathmandu metropolitan city to restrict the campaign to feed hungry people in Tundikhel sparked great outcry. The situation became so tense that the mayor had to organize a press conference to clarify and defend the move. But the decision to shift the feeding spot isn’t convincing given the tainted image of the municipal leader who was also a victim of the virus.
The government is left with a Hobson’s choice for devising an effective policy response. Revisiting recent policy decisions and intensifying multi-stakeholder consultation can never come too late. Coordination with private health institutions including the civil society will require a proactive policy leadership dedicated to general welfare. There is still an opportunity for the government to show that a smart policy response with honest intent can succeed.
The author is an independent writer and researcher