If there was no COVID-19 epidemic, what would be on the international news lineup this week? Before the pandemic spread, the world was grappling with the climate emergency, bushfires in Australia and melting icecaps. Populist leaders in democracies across the world were trying to curb media freedom and manipulate the social web through troll armies and fake accounts.
The coronavirus has given these elected despots the perfect excuse to expand surveillance, extend control over information, squeeze the mass media, and misuse emergency powers. Already in dire straits before the pandemic, the mass media in countries around the world have sunk deeper into financial crisis – just at a time when the role of journalists in spreading awareness, providing accurate information and countering rumours is more needed than ever before.
The pandemic is an accelerant that sharpens existing contradictions, widens socio-economic inequality, and aggravates authoritarian tendencies even in supposedly democratic states. At a time when the international community should be working together, geopolitics is straining relationships.
Nepal has so far been spared a major outbreak, although the possibility of a new COVID-19 cluster cannot be ruled out. What should really worry our government is a post-pandemic economic collapse, and the ensuing social unrest and instability. Nepal has lost its two main sources of income: remittances and tourism. And while a drop in oil prices may give breathing space, joblessness will grow.
It will be easy for public frustration to boil over. Outrage was already high over corruption in high places and poor governance, but news this week of a politico-business nexus trying to fob off faulty test kits at up to six times the cost has raised the anger level. Powerful middlemen pulled the plug on a portal that reported on this scam. Even a pandemic does not seem to have tempered the greed, and stopped a blatant attempt to muzzle the public’s right to know. Instead of rescuing the thousands of Nepali workers stranded in India and the Gulf, politicians and their business partners seem intent on raking it in.
Every disaster is an opportunity for rulers of a country. The COVID-19 pandemic is a chance for this two-thirds majority government to show that it can act decisively to protect citizens.
Will it grab this window of opportunity?