Initial indications show that the Deuba government is also prioritizing politicking over public health.
On July 13, when Sher Bahadur Deuba became the prime minister, there was some expectation that the government change would also bring some changes on the ground. Now, it appears, he will not come forward with a vision for Nepal to ignite hopes. Instead, he seems busy in managing alliance politics and focused on his party’s internal politics.
Sher Bahadur Deuba’s election as the prime minister is not an accident. The new government was formed to safeguard the constitutional and democratic process that his predecessor KP Sharma Oli had almost derailed, and to better manage the country’s Covid-19 response.
The new government will be judged on some key parameters: How does it uphold the constitution? What mechanisms will be in place to promote accountability and transparency? How will the government act to make the people feel that all citizens are treated equally? The real yardstick to measure how the government treats its people will be its action in the health sector, given the fact that the country is reeling from a deadly second wave of Covid-19, with public health experts warning of a third wave.
It is worth noting that upholding constitutionalism is not just about following Article 75 and its subclauses. It is as much about implementing other provisions to ensure accountability and the rights of people. Heeding to the fact that scores are still dying of Covid every day, the government must be in the position to translate the constitutional provision of ‘every citizen shall have equal access to health services’ into reality.
During the peak of the second wave, many patients struggled to get ventilators and hospital beds. Patients in dire need of medical care and essentials like oxygen treatment were returned back because hospitals had run out of stock. The hospitals and their medical personnel were overwhelmed. Then the Oli government declared that ‘the health system can’t contain the pandemic.’ That was the result of politicians prioritizing politicking over public health and lives of the general public. This is what the new government should guard itself against.
Given the urgency to better manage our health system, Prime Minister Deuba should have immediately appointed a competent person as the Health Minister after his election. But he did not do so though he declared that saving lives was the focus of his government. During his address to the parliament after taking oath of office, Deuba had said the three foremost priorities of his government would be to vaccinate the people for free. “The three priorities are vaccines, vaccines and vaccines,” he had announced.
But if the performance of the initial days is any indication, the Deuba government is falling short of fulfilling those expectations, especially when it comes to getting the health facilities to proactively work on preparedness for the possible third wave and to vaccinate the people in an easy and hassle-free way. Neither the PM nor his coalition partners seem to take this issue seriously. Instead, coalition partners were reportedly busy in bargaining for the portfolio of the health ministry, possibly to exact personal benefits from procurement deals and health budget.
What is the vision of the Deuba government for reforming Nepal’s health system? Nepali Congress and its coalition partners should come up with a plan to show they are different from the previous government.
The country seems to be headed toward a riskier phase of infections. Already, there is a looming specter of the third wave. Given the urgency to better manage our health system, Prime Minister Deuba should already have appointed a health minister. On Sunday, he appointed Umesh Shrestha, a person with the background of running his own private education institutions, the State Minister for Health. This has been decried as the proof of Deuba’s preference to ‘donors’ and ‘profit’ sector actors over competent and dedicated leaders in vital ministries.
Given that the country is reeling under a health crisis and the reality of poor governance and delivery from the erstwhile government, there is a need for Deuba administration to be different on at least two vital fronts: Covid response, and governance and delivery. To address the aspiration of people on the first front, the government needs to urgently appoint a health minister, one who understands the gravity of the Covid crisis, who has a willingness to ensure better, affordable and accessible treatment for Covid patients and who takes up the responsibility to deliver on this front from day one. The more the government dithers on this priority the more unmanageable our Covid response is likely to be.
On the second front, the new government must present itself as distinctly different in terms of service delivery and governance. One main reason why people had big resentment at the KP Oli government was that his government seemed happy to be surrounded by tainted faces, some of them even accused of corruption. The Oli government cared little about curbing corruption. The new government must be different on this aspect.
The new government has a huge opportunity to correct the mistakes its predecessor committed in terms of service delivery and good governance. If the past twelve days is any indication, the new government, it must be said, has not had a promising start. People have been watching each and every step of the government since day one. It will be a shame if their expectations are not addressed.