Exactly one year ago, this newspaper restarted its hardcopy edition 10 month after going digital-only. The 1 January 2021 #1042 of Nepali Times carried the bold banner: ‘Print Is Back’.
There was optimism in the air. We thought the worst was over with Covid-19 pandemic, the economy was going to revive and the country would bounce back.
Little did we know what 2021 had in store: the second wave crashed onto Nepal’s shores in April from India, the Delta variant overwhelming the country’s hospitals, and exhausting oxygen supply. Complaceny has set in again, but experts warn we have been caught with our pants down too often.
The WHO warned on Wednesday that the ominous Omicron variant is merging with Delta to create a Covid tsunami. Nepal has all the conditions (low vaccination rate, limited testing, crowding) for this highly transmissible strain to spread like wildfire again.
Wish we had better news for 2022. But things are not looking too rosy. Sectorwise:
Overseas remittances that had held steady despite the pandemic went down by 7.6% in October-November to Rs312 billion. Meanwhile, imports rose to Rs82 billion so far this fiscal year, while exports is lagging at mere Rs6.5 billion. The trade deficit increased to Rs150 billion in October-November, while foreign currency reserves dipped by $510 million to a near record low of $10.47 billion — enough only to last six months of imports.
Tourism revenue has collapsed, and government spending is stagnant. Banks are suffering a liquidity crisis, although that seems to be due to increased borrowing.
Things are not looking good in agriculture: rice harvests went down by 20% due to post-monsoon floods, and there is a chronic fertiliser crisis.
Janardan Sharma may have been a brilliant guerrilla commander, but he seems clueless as Finance Minister — he has no sense of urgency about the emergency. He and his boss are prone to gaffes that spook the market even more. This economic crisis is a result of populism and neglect. 2022 being an election campaign year, it is not likely to be addressed.
Learning from mistakes from the past two years, the Health Ministry must be prepared for an Omicron surge in 2022 with border testing and tracing, ICU beds, ventilators and oxygen generators. A mass vaccination and booster campaign with the 12 million stockpiled doses should have started last month. What are they waiting for?
Nepal’s delegation said the right things at the COP26 in Glasgow, but seems too distracted with immediate political crises to look at net-zero and forest cover targets it pledged. We cannot afford to wait for climate adaptation funds that may never come to start doing our bit at home to reduce petroleum consumption and switch to renewables.
2022 will be dominated by campaigning. We have got a whiff of what it is going to be like from speeches at the recent party conventions. In the absence of result-delivery while in office, leaders are falling back on religion, monarchy, ethnic politics and rolling back federalism.
Given the political failure of the past four years (example: blatant fragmentation of ministries in Bagmati Province) those who want to scrap federalism and secularism are building mass support.
Then there is governance, or the lack thereof. Service delivery and development are at a standstill. There is colossal misappropriation of state funds for personal and party gain.
National projects like the MCC are weaponised in a geopolitical proxy war. Tried-tested-failed figures of the past decades have been elected to senior party positions.
Given all this, the wellbeing of Nepalis in coming years will continue to depend on remittances. We hope this year’s dip is a blip. This important sector must be cleaned of corruption and abuse, new labour markets explored, and overseas Nepalis encouraged to return and invest.
Given the new party leadership, we do not expect much from this or post-2023 governments. But we have hope in Nimsdai Purja, Prabal Gurung, Santosh Shah and tens of thousands of other hard-working citizens across Nepal who keep the flag flying.