Nepal's New Normal


The COVID-19 pandemic is like a nightmare that we wish we could suddenly wake up from, realising that it was just a dream. Or like one of those apocalyptic Hollywood movies in which a savaged planet is saved in the final moments from apocalypse.

Imagine if the coronavirus outbreak had not happened. What would we be talking about now? The US elections and the deepening polarisation of America. The climate emergency and how northern Europe just went through one of its warmest winters in history. The non-stop tragedies of the Syria and Yemen wars. And here in Nepal, we would be rehashing the same old power struggle within the ruling NCP between an ailing prime minister and his rivals.

Epidemiologists and public health experts are divided about just how long it will take for the pandemic to peak, and how long after that for things to get back to a new normal. Some say COVID-19’s success in spreading so far so rapidly will doom it as it mutates itself out of existence. Others predict that even if it fades away in the coming months, there will be new outbreaks in the southern hemisphere winter and a secondary epidemic later this year.

Either way, this strand of RNA which is not even ‘alive’ in the technical sense, has ravaged the international economy. The World Bank said this week the pandemic was causing ‘unprecedented global shock, which could bring growth to a halt and could increase poverty’ across Asia. Even while governments battle with the scourge, and try to compress the peak with extended lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing, they are already thinking about the aftermath, and the even greater threat of economic collapse.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of just how fragile global systems are, how certainties we took for granted can suddenly vaporise, and how unprepared nations are in working together in a time of global emergency. Reluctance to act, and delays in prevention have cost tens of thousands of lives. And it is not even over yet.

Governments are already trying cover up their previous failures by blaming each other and the virus. There will be a tendency to increase surveillance, expand control on information and the mass media, and to misuse emergency powers. The pandemic is an accelerant that sharpens existing contradictions within countries, in geopolitics, and aggravates authoritarian tendencies already present in countries with elected despots.

The post-pandemic economic collapse and its impact on political stability is what should concern us here in Nepal. Falling oil prices may provide some relief. But a drop in remittances from Nepali workers abroad and the termination of tourism for the rest of 2020 will push Nepalis, who survive precariously at the best of times, off the edge.

Even if Nepal may not have so far suffered a direct hit from the virus, it is the economy that is going to take a bodyblow. For a public that is already disenchanted with incompetent rulers, fed up of corruption (even in the purchase of COVID-19 test kits and protective gear), outraged about Nepali workers not being allowed back into their own country, the economic hardships and joblessness following the epidemic can cause anger to boil over into violent social unrest and threaten political stability. The temptation for politicians then will be to resort to tighter controls, populism, xenophobia, or religious extremism.

Nepal’s COVID-19 Control High-level Task Force has taken some bold decisions by being the first country in South Asia to announce a lockdown, and sacrificing tourism and migrant worker mobility to save the country from the pandemic. But there has also been bungling and a lack of sensitivity — especially in dealing with returnees from India and in providing an effective safety net for those worst hit by the prolonged shutdown.

Every disaster is an opportunity for rulers of a country, especially those that have been found wanting in the past, to show that they can act decisively to protect and provide for citizens. To cushion the blow, and not be seen as coddling cronies and continuing with corruption as usual.

Nepal squandered the opportunity to turn the 2015 earthquake into a job-creation campaign at home for national reconstruction. We wasted the chance to turn the Indian Blockade to diversify trade and reduce our reliance on imported petroleum. What will it be this time?

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