Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is an example of how a whimsical leader costs high for a nation and its people. He underweighted the severity of Covid-19 that has been manifested in his public communication since the very beginning of its outbreak last year. This article describes how he undermined the facts around Covid-19 pandemic and how it affected Covid-19 response.
Telling lies, breaking rules
PM Oli presented a claim on June 10, 2020, in parliament that Nepali people had high immunity power. When parliamentarian Gagan Thapa questioned him if his idea was based on any scientific evidence, the PM came up with a harsh response: “Did you not hear me? I said it, just a while ago.”
The PM did not stop here. He continued to advise people on homemade remedies against the virus claiming that food, climatic condition, intake pattern of people contributed to high immunity and herbs available in the country could help heal the Covid-19. On July 18, addressing the National Assembly, he further tried to reinforce his earlier claim and said the Covid-19 was like flu. He advised if anyone gets contracted with the virus, she/he should drink hot water and sneeze out the virus. On 19 May, he had told the parliament in his address that Indian virus looked more lethal than Chinese and Italian and hence more were getting infected.
In April 2021 when the second wave had already hit Nepal, he suggested to boil water with guava leafs and gargle with it to keep coronavirus at bay. Instead of telling people scientifically tested information about vaccines, he said even vaccines cannot guarantee 100 percent protection.
On 15 May 2021, he seemed to reluctantly correct himself on immunity claim saying that he had thought the immune system of Nepalis was stronger and thus the virus would not affect Nepalis the way it did. He said he realized a normal immune system could not resist the virus. That after prescribing false remedies for several months, when the number of deaths and active cases stood 4,856 and 1, 09740 respectively. When PM Oli first spoke about immunity claims on June 10 last year, there were 15 deaths and 3,675 active cases under isolation. It was too late by the time Oli realized (hopefully he did) the virus would have a fatal impact although the experts had cautioned publicly and continuously that the country might face another wave of the virus and the situation might get worse if the country’s health system is not well-prepared for Covid response.
Instead of telling people about scientifically tested information about vaccines, Oli said even vaccines cannot guarantee 100 percent protection.
Prime Minister Oli was one step ahead in violating safety protocol as he led a series of crowded mass demonstrations after he dissolved the House of Representatives in December 2020 and announced the election date. His irresponsible acts left an impression among the people that Covid-19 was over and safety protocols did not have to be followed. Consequently, streets and public places saw large crowds and demonstrations exacerbating the spread of the virus.
Although the country’s health system was struggling to respond to Covid-19 pandemic, PM Oli’s apathy to this health crisis was evident. First, he downplayed the evidence related to the pandemic by spreading the rumors of homemade remedies which discouraged the experts, medical workers and responders including the officials of Ministry of Health and Population. Second, he diverted attention of people and local leaders who were distracted from Covid-19 response at the local level as their attentions were focused on political activism including mass rallies and mass gatherings. Such incidents also helped set a perception that Covid threat was over.
Mass rallies and gatherings were bad signs. For instance, the spokesperson at Nepal’s Ministry of Health and Population had told an international news agency the protests and the election campaigns could lead to the massive spread of coronavirus. Although they continuously conveyed a message against mass gathering, political issues were not under their control. It is proven that covid-19 virus is transmitted mainly between people who are in close contact with each other—within one meter—thus we can say that mass gatherings contributed to the spread of the virus.
Keep your promise
On January 27, PM Oli inaugurated the Covid-19 vaccine drive where he promised that all the citizens will get vaccinated within three months. But his government failed to import the vaccines and now he has changed his statement: People will get vaccine before the election in November. Although Minister for Health and Population Hridayesh Tripathi has told media outlets that the vaccine import faced hurdles due to commission agents and influence of local agents, Oli failed to take any action. This adversely affected the vaccination drive.
MoHP authorities believe that procuring vaccines and administering it to the public was impossible within three months. But he kept repeating that promise for long, until he failed. PM Oli makes sharp criticism about his opponents and often his arguments are not based on evidence. He also made himself the worst communicator during the pandemic.
The covid-19 response is not just a bureaucratic function, it involves a high-level political decision-making process. The Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) can take technical decisions and provide recommendations for other decisions that do not fall under its jurisdiction. Due to politico-economic interest, political leadership does not take prompt action. For instance, on April 15, the MoHP had recommended to shut down schools and early closure of restaurants in 14 districts considering them to be highly vulnerable to Covid-19. But Education Minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha reacted by saying that shutting down schools was not a solution as children would not stay at home but hang out even if schools would remain closed. His reluctance was attributed to his connection with educational institution operators who wanted to run schools for economic gain. CCMC delayed its decision to close the schools later.
PM Oli makes sharp criticism about his opponents and often his arguments are not based on evidence. He also made himself the worst communicator during the pandemic.
The CCMC’s directive committee includes ministers of major concerned ministries as members whereas it is said PM’s nod is necessary for CCMC to take high level decisions. However, PM often listens to his close aides who are none other than his politically appointed advisors who often tend to suggest PM based on how the decision is likely to give political advantage instead of guiding PM on evidence-based decision making as PM’s secretariat excludes professional experts. This has aggravated the PM’s communication failure.
Today, country is reeling under public health crisis and our health system has failed to control the second wave. Large number of people are infected and large number of people are dying every day. But PM Oli is wasting his time in crafting his political speech comprising self-praise and hate for others. At a time when pandemic is taking a toll on citizen’s lives, the PM must stop adding fuel to fire by making jokes. He must listen to the experts, correct himself and feel the pain of the people.
Shreeman Sharma is a social science researcher specializing in media and communication.