ECONOMYNEXT – South Asian countries should have adopted a common regional strategy to combat the spread of coronavirus in the region, says Indian journalist Suhasini Haidar.
Speaking at a webinar on ‘Nepal: Himalayan Country in Crisis?’, Haidar said that even though the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries met via a video conference in March 2020 to discuss the matter, there has been no follow through.
Haidar, who is the Diplomatic Editor of the Hindu Newspaper said, the region ‘started right, but the greatest sorrow is that South Asian countries, then, failed to plan adequately.’
The region, particularly those countries that share borders should have acted fast to secure their geographic region. Diplomacy alone is not adequate, commitment by the leadership is necessary to ensure all people are vaccinated the webinar heard.
A fully vaccinated South Asia would have been able to ride the second wave of the coronavirus better, Haidar added, stating that there would have been fewer lives lost. Instead, leaders of the countries were, during that first wave in early 2020 complacent, busy directing the attention of the people to the rapid spread of the virus in other, more developed countries.
Haidar states that South Asian nations did not do their homework; India, for instance, failed to even make a ballpark estimate of the vaccines required to combat the spread within the country.
Joining Haidar in the discussion organised by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom (FNF) on June 29 were Gagan Thapa, a Member of the Nepali Parliament, Dr. Dhawal Shamesher Rana, Mayor of Nepalgunj Sub Metropolitan city and Vice President and General Secretary of the Rashtriya Prajantantra Party. The panel was moderated by Dr. Bishal Dhakal, Physician, Columnist and Social Entrepreneur. Bettina Stark-Watzinger, a Member of the German Federal Parliament the Bundestag and Board Member of FNF was the Keynote Speaker. Associated with the discussion was Nepal’s Consul General in Germany, Ram Pratap Thapa.
The aftermath of the pandemic clearly indicates that all South Asian countries will be equally affected on the economic front, from migrant workers to tourism. Haidar points out that this state of vulnerability should have been the reason for the region to act as one unit. Covid, she said, has shown ‘there are no borders’ and insular attitudes do not work.
In Nepal, as in Sri Lanka, a major issue of concern is the dearth of sufficient vaccines to go around. Says Gagan Thapa, the need of the hour is not oxygen concentrators, Oximeters or PPE’s but vaccinations. Nepal may feel secure being wedged between two world powers, India, and China, but under the current situation that has been of no use. Neither SAARC nor the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) have been structurally functional during periods of normalcy and therefore cannot be relied upon now, he pointed out.
Nepal, says Dr. Dhawal Shamesher Rana received a gift of a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India. However, with the Indian government later deciding that their citizens are a priority, and abandoning the donation of vaccines to other, less advantaged countries, Nepalese find themselves in a quandary. Rana claims that the Nepalese government is now set to purchase vaccines from China, adding that a proposal by a not-for-profit organisation, the Himani Trust to facilitate the Johnson vaccines through the United States had not been accepted by the Nepalese government. The Trust has since approached the Local government authority of Nepalgunj, the city he is Mayor of, and has received approval, though Rana says he is not expecting a positive outcome.
It was the Sub-Metropolitan city of Nepalgunj that had to first battle the coronavirus in that country.
As the pandemic spread in developed countries, Nepalese were lulled into a ‘false hope and confidence’ the country was resilient to the virus. But within days of the first patient testing positive, there were twenty-three others, he added.
Nepalgunj shares a border with India and is close to the latter’s Uttar Pradesh industrial region. The lockdowns saw large-scale migration of citizens between the two countries, heading towards their respective homes. Rana says the initial agreement of setting up quarantine centers at the border for these workers was not successful. Efforts to ease the travails of these travel weary workers took time, with every approval sought having to wend its way through the various levels of government. When Cabinet sanction was finally granted, often, the ground realities had changed.
Thapa states that early on in the pandemic, his party had registered a motion of urgent public importance in the Parliament to identify gaps and challenges and a strategy to manage the situation. However, that had been to no avail, he alleges.
All three panelists agreed that there are governance issues in their respective countries in the fight against the pandemic.
As Rana pointed out the Federal and Union structures of government failed in effectively managing the pandemic, especially when the first wave hit. There was confusion regarding responsibility between the tiers of government, inadequate funding, and ambiguity about protocols. However, the second wave had been managed better, and coordination between the Federal and Union governments had improved as was the funding.
Recalls Haidar, some hospitals in India had a short supply of oxygen but were running at capacity, while others that had enough stocks of oxygen had fewer patients, during the height of India’s first wave. Attempts to transport oxygen across States ran into snags, with each State staking a priority. There was, she says a ‘breakdown in the relationship between the Federal and State governments.’ Sadly, in some instances even though patients were admitted to hospitals, they had succumbed to the virus, owing to the non-availability of oxygen at those institutions.
There must be better rapport between ‘the State and the Center’ she points out, adding that this is also the reason for the shortage of vaccines. As well, the Central government had gone ahead with conducting elections in five different States and permitted the Kumbh Mela festival.
Thapa concurs. “It’s not about the quantity and size, but the quality of governance that is important.’ Describing the government’s actions to the pandemic as being reactive rather than proactive, Thapa pointed out that the time the motion was presented to parliament, the country had the resources to invest and stockpile the tools to fight the pandemic. Instead, he claims the Nepali government discarded scientific findings and misinformed and misled the people into believing they would not fall prey to the virus.
The Federal government, he said has been unable to hold meaningful discussions and partner with other actors. There was no clarifying of roles he said, alluding to the failure of the Federal structure of governance. Nepal transitioned into a Federal Democratic form of governance in 2008, abolishing its 240-year-old monarchy. Such failures have resulted in misgivings about the federal form of governance, he added.
Similar lapses, says Haidar resulted in the second wave in India, and questions are asked as to why the government had failed to see it coming.
Amidst all the heartache, despair, and lives lost she explained there was humanity. Families keeping vigil outside hospitals where relatives were battling the virus received food from volunteers who had banded together to help. Those who had recovered from the virus returned to the hospitals to donate plasma when doctors believed that was a solution. Tents were erected outside hospitals where patients could, while waiting for admission, get oxygen.
Journalists too were fielding requests from members of the public who were seeking assistance to get hospital admissions or a bed and even oxygen. This had resulted in a former journalist together with several other volunteers setting up a combined central room in Gurgaon, a city on the outskirts of Delhi. Through WhatsApp, the group had been able to inform people where beds, oxygen etc., were available.
It is easier said than done, says Rana, to ask that borders be shut. But ‘it’s inhumane not to allow Indians and Nepalese cross the border to get home. In some cases, villages are divided between the two countries.’ Here again, there was help from volunteers to help feed those in quarantine.
The only two factories supplying oxygen are located within his locality, explained Rana, adding that during the crisis, oxygen had to be sent to other cities and even India. As well, many patients from other districts sought hospital admission in Nepalgunj; for several it was too late, having tried other remedies before seeking medical intervention. Such patients had accounted for more than 50 percent of deaths.
While making legislative interventions, Thapa had simultaneously supported the local authorities cope with the dire situation; most important was partnering with the local government in setting up fully staffed isolation centres with 25 beds. These are to be converted to post Covid-management centres at a future date. Volunteers and other stakeholders had been mobilized to provide proper information to the public and counter disinformation. While ensuring the basics such as masks were readily available, the ‘health at home’ initiative ensured that only those in urgent need of hospitalisation were admitted; others were cared for and counselled at home, thus reducing congestion in overcrowded hospitals. Such efforts also help health workers who put in long hours ministering to the sick.
The pandemic, states Rana, has set the tone, and Nepal should prioritise being prepared to face any crisis whether it is in the health sector, political, or any other. Political leaders must learn to put aside differences and work together; agreements between nations must be implemented, and not limited to just talk. The issue at hand is post-Covid economic recovery. National leaders must consider common solutions that would protect the GDP, perhaps issuance of joint visas to workers, ways of boosting tourism. It is important to be cognizant of the fact that ‘when one is hit, all get hit.’
‘Political ideologies must be set aside’ agrees Thapa and administrations must strive to ensure functionality. Better understanding between India and Nepal is essential. And if lockdowns are necessary, for instance, there must be a basis for that decision. People lose trust if the directives are applied differently for the privileged in society. Have lockdowns helped prevent the spread of the virus, he asked, alleging that all stakeholders such as local and state governments are not consulted. Instead, the Chief District Officer (CDO) makes decisions without consultations.’ Employment and education must also be considered.
The coronavirus pandemic says Haidar highlighted the importance of changing priorities. Nations cannot act in isolation and must recognise their inter-dependency. Just like the EU or the Central Asian bloc, strong regionalisation is the answer. It is, she says imperative that nations see issues as everybody’s problem, and not in isolation, and act as one body. (Colombo/July05/2021)