Kathmandu: When Mahendra Bahadur Pandey landed in Beijing on July 9, 2020, as the ambassador of Nepal to China, Nepal was already in lockdown for three months. In fact, the lockdown had delayed his posting by three months—he was nominated for appointment in early May and appointed in April. Situations in China were improving but people were following safety protocols strictly. He had to stay in quarantine for two weeks and in isolation for one more week before he joined the office.
It was an abnormal time everywhere. Even diplomacy suffered. He had to wait for eight months before he submitted his credentials to President Xi Jinping. “Because of Covid, there were at least nine ambassadors who had come to China before me but who were yet to submit their credentials to the president,” he told Nepal Live Today.
Credential submission was scheduled sometimes for November, 2020. Every waiting ambassador had their PCR tests. “But one of the envoys tested positive. Then credential submission got postponed,” he said.
Presentation of credentials by the ambassadors is usually a grand occasion at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. But this time new rules were set: No hand shaking, two meters distance between two persons and each ambassador would only get 30 seconds of time to introduce themselves. “Within that time, you could only say things like I am so and so ambassador appointed to China,” recounted Pandey. But he took a bit more time anyway. He conveyed President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s message that Nepal is committed to implementing the agreement with China made during President Xi’s visit to Nepal in October, 2019.
This was in April, 2021, a year after he was appointed.
Pandey started to advocate for vaccine support for Nepal as early as November, 2020 when vaccines were just being produced. “When the WHO also approved Sinopharm vaccines, we started communicating with the foreign ministry officials,” he said.
The Chinese do not like spending time talking, they believe in action and results. A Chinese official once told me ‘we do not talk, we act.’ That’s the spirit here.
Back home, the Ministry of Health was delaying the process by citing ‘non-disclosure agreement’ concerns. “The Chinese do not like spending time talking, they believe in action and results,” he said. “A Chinese official once told me, we do not talk, we act. That’s the spirit here.”
Pandey, along with Nepali officials in Beijing, met the leaders of Sinopharm personally to discuss the matter. First Sinipharm said they would be able to deliver the supply to Nepal only by the first week of July because they had supplies to send to many other countries. “But we said that the situation in Nepal is getting worse. We said we need two million doses as soon as possible. We told them of the urgency.”
Then China announced to provide half a million doses in grants, which they later increased to 800,000. Then when foreign minister of Nepal and his Chinese counterpart had a conversation, the process was expedited. After President Xi Jinping had a conversation with President Bhandari, the Chinese side became even more active in sending support to Nepal.
“We began to say ‘give us in grants whatever quantity you can, we will purchase the rest,’” shared Pandey. “Then sending vaccine support to Nepal began to gain momentum.” On June 1, a consignment of 850,400 Covid-19 vaccines provided by China to Nepal as grant assistance arrived in Kathmandu.
Pandey explained the issue of non-disclosure agreement. In China companies cannot fix the price of goods. The government does. According to Pandey, Sinopharm could have asked for non-disclosure provision with the best intention. Perhaps they want to give Nepal vaccine and support at a lower price than for other South Asian countries, he said. Officials in China tell him that they have put Nepal in number one priority in Covid support. The implied meaning behind the non-disclosure agreement is that they will give to Nepal more in grants, and even if Nepal has to purchase, the price will be determined for Nepal based on Nepal’s capacity to purchase.
“This is the implied meaning. In Kathmandu, they tried to politicize it, which only delayed the process,” he said. “The Health Ministry leadership did not seem to understand the implied meaning.”
Nepal has been asking for Covid support more in grants, he said.
We have demanded 20 million vaccines. Chinese president has clearly said that least developed and developing countries should put priority in vaccine supply.
Pandey and embassy officials are meeting the officials of Sinopharm and Sinovac on June 15 again. “We have demanded 20 million vaccines. Chinese president has clearly said that China should put in priority the least developed and developing countries in vaccine supply,” he said.
One major role of the embassy in Beijing was in connecting those who wanted to purchase supplies from Chinese companies and donate them to Nepal with those companies. The Embassy has been working as a bridge.
Nepalis living in America contacted Pandey and said they wanted to send oxygen cylinders to Nepal. Pandey connected them with the respective companies, through which they purchased the oxygen cylinders and sent them to Nepal. NRNs wanted to send 200 oxygen concentrators to Nepal. They requested the embassy to connect them with respective companies so that they could purchase them and send them to Nepal. “Our duty has been to identify the donors and ensure more support goes to Nepal,” he said.
The embassy conducted virtual meetings between Consulate Generals of Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Lhasa and Nepali business people, traders and professionals living in China. “Nepalis have been sending support via land route by coordinating with Consulate Generals,” said Pandey.
“It’s not possible to explain everything that we do as ambassadors. But here in Beijing we always think how best we can secure Covid support for Nepal,” he said.
[This is the first story under our ‘diplomatic duty during Covid-19’ section. Nepal Live Today aims to bring to readers more stories of diplomats who contributed to securing support for Nepal. Editor]