Until vaccines and therapies are available, we in Nepal like everywhere else in the world, have to learn to live with this scourge. Extending the lockdown is not the answer unless other measures such as mass testing and sero-prevalence surveys are done.
Which is why good sense has prevailed and the CDOs of Kathmandu Valley met at the Home Ministry on Wednesday and decided to be smarter about the lockdown, allowing people greater freedom and asking them to take necessary precautions to remain safe.
From Thursday, odd-even number vehicles will be allowed back on the roads, including bigger size public buses. Provisions shops will be allowed to be open from 5-11AM, and 5-7PM. Restaurants will also be allowed to do takeaways and online deliveries for limited periods, but with strict compliance. Department stores, shopping malls and other shops can open Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Detailed do’s and don’ts have also been issued, but somewhat ambiguously, the directive also states that ‘services similar to the above’ will also be allowed. Experts have also questioned how wise it is to limit opening time for shops because it could lead to overcrowding.
But something is not quite right about the way this decision has been taken. By handing over discretion on lockdowns to CDOs across the country who are under direct command of the Home Ministry, the government is passing buck. Leaders in Kathmandu forget that Nepal is a now a federal state, decision-making has been devolved to local governments
The most effective strategy to deal with the pandemic is to let elected local leaders to decide how to handle it, with the central government only ensuring that they have adequate resources, equipment and medical personnel. Unfortunately, the national level leaders are taking self-isolation a bit too seriously, and are nowhere to be seen. They have centralised power, and have gone into hiding with it.
What we do see every day is the Nepal Ministry of Health’s coronavirus press briefing. It is an endless listicle of statistics read out by Jageshwor Sharma Gautam, who may be a fine obstetrician and gynaecologist, but has such dreary delivery that he should have been the last choice for a spokesperson.
During the Vietnam War, the US military had daily press briefings at Saigon’s Rex Hotel which were called the ‘Five O’clock Follies’ in which a spokesman read out a long list of American victories that day. Invariably, the number of Viet Cong dead would exceed American fatalities by a factor of ten.
Prof Gautam’s four o’clock briefings are beginning to sound like that. During the Covid-19 emergency, this should have been the job for a person with extraordinary communication skills, and a screen personality that commands credibility and respect. Most readers will agree that Prof Gautam has none of those attributes, even though by now many of us have got used to his visage and voice.
Do a video search on Google and you will find a clip of the good doctor picking his nose ahead of his daily televised briefing. Good thing he was not live on tv then, but this unhygienic on camera performance has been immortalised on YouTube.
To be sure, replacing the spokesperson is not the most serious or most urgent problem that needs to be fixed right now. But it is an indication of the lack of professionalism for a job that needs a person with effective communication skills to combat an infectious disease in which communication is the first line of defence.
The soporific teleprompter recitation of the day’s statistics delivered in a deadpan monotone does not reflect the seriousness with which we should be responding to this contagion.
The media is also partly to blame for carrying the briefings live, and using it as a filler in the evening tv bulletins. There is very little analysis of the figures, how the total confirmed cases are functions of how many tests are done, and who is tested. Or what the positive rates are for contact traced people. Also, asking questions like why schools should be closed in districts with no or very few cases.
To some extent, scaring the people is effective. Otherwise, with the easing of restrictions in Kathmandu Valley, we will again get the kind of reckless behaviour that followed the lifting of the lockdown on 21 July that resulted in the current surge. But there is no need to unnecessarily panic the public. After all, SARS-CoV-2 has an identical mode of transmission as another deadly pathogen, the tuberculosis bacillus, which has for centuries been endemic in Nepal.
As the Nepali Congress MP and former health minister Gagan Thapa wrote on a social media post this week: ‘The political leadership is hiding behind the CDO and the bureaucracy, they don’t have the guts to address the people directly … the people’s patience is running out and it could explode at any moment.’